Parker O’Brien

Area of Focus: Electrical Engineering

Graduation Year: Spring 2016

“I always look for the greatest challenge”

Parker O’Brien: Up for a Challenge

Undergraduate student Parker O’Brien is the recipient of the Oswald Award for 2015 – 2016. Given out each year, the award recognizes one or more undergraduate students who have excelled in research. Parker works with ECE Prof. Emad Ebbini and his team of talented undergraduate, and graduate students, and research faculty.

Parker started working with Prof. Ebbini in January 2015 as a junior. He was keen on pursuing the senior honors project option for his capstone project and having always been interested in implementing electrical engineering concepts in biomedical applications he carried out a quick review of the department’s research directory, looking for faculty whose research focused specifically on biomedical devices and systems. Excited that Prof. Ebbini’s research coincided with his own budding interests, Parker shot off an email requesting a meeting. As for most things, preparation is key, and Parker went to the meeting prepared to understand and discuss the research to the extent possible by a student of junior status. The meeting, held on a Friday morning in December 2014, would turn out to be significant for Parker beyond the confines of finding an advisor for his senior honors project.

Here is in his own words is Parker, giving us an insight into what drives his interest in research and his work in Prof. Ebbini’s team, on his professional mentors and personal cheer team, and his advice for undergraduate students curious about research.

On his interest in research

I have always asked a lot of questions. And the best thing I have found about research is that it has a never ending supply of possibilities for my deep curiosity. I always look for the greatest challenge, and research has provided me a way to grow in ways that I could have never thought of before.

Although my grandfather passed away when I was in middle school, I always heard stories about his brilliance and inventiveness as an electrical engineer. He invented several electrical devices to help farmers, including one that measured humidity within a ear of corn to perfectly time harvesting. My grandfather’s curiosity and inventiveness has been inspiring and I am eager to play my part in helping the world with applications of electrical engineering.

Research is wonderful in that you  can always find a challenge to take you to the next step. The challenge lies in the fact that the answers are not to be found in a book that you can read. The curiosity to ask the next question or try something new is what drives research, and I cannot get enough of it!

I love the fact that everyday in the lab, I do something that I have never done before, and probably very few people in the world have ever done! I am blessed to be on the leading edge of the Focused Ultrasound industry, and I am only an undergraduate student. This is a blessing I cannot emphasize too much!

On your role in Prof. Ebbini’s team

My role in Professor Emad Ebbini’s research lab has been primarily focused around researching Non-Invasive Neurological Treatments using Focused Ultrasound (FUS). Within the lab, I have many responsibilities. I am developing hardware and software to improve our FUS system to work with human models ex vivo. The majority of my work seeks to map the transmission of ultrasound through a human skull. Such mapping allows us to create algorithms that can better transmit the ultrasound through the skull on its way towards the target area of treatment. It also leads to better imaging resolution and quality. Among my other experiments are in vivo opening of the transcranial blood brain barrier (BBB) within rats which could then guide us to  opening the BBB within a human model.

On the science

All the research we do leads towards completely non-invasive solutions to diseases like Parkinson’s tremor, brain cancer, and epilepsy. Focused Ultrasound has the possibility to provide treatment with minimal surgery and recovery time cutting down the risk of infection from an invasive surgery. For example, some serious cases of epilepsy require removal of brain tissue. This is a very serious surgery because it not only requires cutting tissue from the brain, but also runs the risk of infection. Our research with Focused Ultrasound could achieve the same goal of reducing seizures without ever opening the skull. FUS can destroy tissue within the brain in a very small area to achieve the same results as cutting out the tissue. This also reduces time spent in the hospital recovering from a week and a half to a few days only for monitoring. The applications just within the brain for Focused Ultrasound are numerous, and I am very excited to be apart of such an exponential industry.

In addition to providing better solutions to surgeries that already exist, Focused Ultrasound has the potential to open brand new frontiers in the field of medicine. For instance, Focused Ultrasound could be used to open the blood brain barrier temporarily to allow specific drugs or chemotherapy to pass into regions of the brain that could not be previously accessed. After delivering the drugs, the BBB will close naturally to continue proper function within the brain.

A unique aspect of our lab is that we use dual-mode ultrasound arrays (DMUAs) to provide Focused Ultrasound therapy. Currently in the industry and other research laboratories, MRI is used to image the relevant part of the patient’s body and then FUS is used to perform the surgery. With DMUA we can integrate imaging and surgery, and this ability to provide imaging and therapy using the same device offers significantly greater speed and control over the surgeries performed. It also makes the surgery more reliable because you are providing therapy with the same mode of imaging which reduces the number of variables significantly.

On the mentors in your academic/professional life

Prof. Ebbini has been a world of help in my discovery of the Focused Ultrasound industry. His research has focused on providing solutions for diseases ranging from cardiac arrhythmia, uterine cysts, and breast cancer to hypertension, and neurological diseases. He has designed all of the DMUAs that we use within the lab to perform all of our experiments. Since the beginning, he has welcomed and patiently answered my constant barrage of questions related to his research and the lab’s operation. I have learned from him how to conduct thorough research and perform repeatable experiments. He has taught me the importance of signal processing in providing the safest therapies and the cleanest images. His excitement and ability to dream of solving the next problem are infectious and encouraging to be around.

Prof. Dalong Liu has been just as influential as Professor Ebbini. Professor Liu is a strong hardware and software developer and our current FUS is largely due to his amazing efforts over the past 8 or more years. Professor Liu has been instrumental in my understanding of how to develop hardware and software for such a complex system, and how FUS works within human and animal tissue. His consistent patience with my stream of questions has made learning and working in the lab a lot of fun. Professor Liu’s skill and wide knowledge base is an excellent example of what I should strive for as I develop my own research capabilities.

Alyona Haritonova, a graduate student who earned her doctoral degree a year ago, was in Prof. Ebbini’s lab during my first few months. Her research using FUS within in vivo rat models taught me a lot about research and its true potential. I learned how to analyze data effectively, and how to seek the next question to answer. She has been a powerful mentor, demonstrating to me the doctoral path really looks like.

On your personal cheer squad

My parents have always supported me and I have been blessed by their constant curiosity and willingness to listen and learn from me and my research. Even where their technical understanding has been limited, they have always supported me to do the best that I can. I attribute my drive to learn and work hard  to my mother, and my curiosity and search for answers to my father. My parents’ unfailing encouragement has helped me become the researcher I am today. My sister has also been a staunch supporter, encouraging me to do my best, even when I was in high school. My fiance Ashley has spent many hours listening to and supporting me as I balance my classes with my research. She has also helped me stay focused on and maintain work-life balance.

Any Tips for Potential Undergraduate Researchers?

My first piece of advice to anyone curious about research is always “Ask questions!”. Approach your professors after class and ask them about their research. Faculty are always appreciative of interest in their field. Look them up online and read their technical abstracts. I hardly understood any of the technical papers that I read, right away, but reading extensively  supported and enhanced my understanding very quickly.

The second key tip is to meet with your professors. Request a specific time to meet and discuss the research they are doing in their labs. If it interests you, seek to volunteer in their lab. There may be undergraduate research positions available. The University of Minnesota provides separate funding for undergraduate researchers. I was so comforted to know that I would not be competing with graduate students for any positions.

Do not underestimate the impact you can make on any laboratory as an undergraduate student! Sometimes research can appear unapproachable because of its complexity. But with genuine interest and diligence you will be able to unravel and understand complex information.

Working with a doctoral student researcher for only a few months gave me enough know-how to start my own research. I have truly found that research here at the University of Minnesota is far more accessible than I could have ever expected.

Find what interests you. I guarantee there is a professor here at the University of Minnesota who has interests similar to your own. Look at faculty websites, at Experts@Minnesota, and other University websites to find research areas that coincide with your interests. I wanted to find a research group from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering focused on biomedical devices and I found exactly what I was looking for. Also, don’t be afraid to jump across departments. Combining different skill sets within a lab often moves the group forward even faster.

The University of Minnesota provides many wonderful and different opportunities to get into research. With UROP, special funding for projects, and the number of the professors conducting research, there is no shortage of opportunities for any student. I have felt so blessed by all the opportunities at the University of Minnesota. I have found so much more than I ever expected to find.

Plans for the future

I have been accepted to the 5 year Master’s degree program and plan on staying on for a doctoral degree from ECE. My undergraduate research leads and contributes very directly to what I plan on working on as a Ph.D. student. And after that? Well, I hope to lead a research-based career, as a scientist perhaps, in medical imaging or signal processing.