Doctoral Student Awarded AAUW Dissertation Fellowship
Doctoral student Rebecca Wachs has been awarded an American Association of University Women (AAUW) American Dissertation Fellowship to support her research on lower back pain and the
development of electronic sensors to monitor patients' response to orthopedic surgery.
The fellowship recognizes exceptional scholarship and a commitment to advancing opportunities for women. It provides support for women who are completing their doctoral dissertations.
Wachs expects to earn her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering this summer. She is one of 58 women nationwide to receive an AAUW American Dissertation Fellowship for the 2011-2012 academic year.
Her research focuses on two related issues: understanding the role that muscles play in increasing the load on the spine, and developing a small, electronic sensor that could monitor loading patterns in patients who have undergone orthopedic surgery such as spinal fusion or total joint replacement.
The sensor would be implanted during surgery, as a component of the orthopedic device. Once installed, the sensor would wirelessly transmit real-time data on load, strain, motion, temperature, and pressure. This information could then be used to assess patients' progress and develop treatment plans.
"The work that Becky is doing is phenomenal. It's very technical and very translatable, and we've already seen a lot of interest from both the engineering and the medical communities," said her adviser Eric Ledet, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and head of Rensselaer's Musculoskeletal Mechanics Laboratory.
Ledet and Wachs presented the research during the Orthopaedic Research Society annual meeting in February (see related story), where a prototype of their sensor garnered considerable attention and was well-received. Ledet is quick to credit Rensselaer's culture of innovation and its collaborative relationship with Albany Medical College.
"Rensselaer provides a rich environment—a combination of technical and engineering heritage and leading-edge research," Ledet said. "But it's our collaboration with Albany Medical College physicians that has made this project so successful." He describes Wachs as an "outstanding, unique student," in part because of her nontraditional career path.
Wachs, who holds a master's in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer, returned to pursue a Ph.D. after three years as an advanced imaging microscopy specialist with Carl Zeiss, Microimaging. Her goal is to go back to the commercial arena, but at the "interface of research and industry," where she can play a role in advancing discoveries that can improve the quality of life for orthopedic patients.
She also intends to serve as a mentor to other women, a decision that's rooted in her experience at Zeiss. "Up to that point, I'd been involved in mentoring girls in sports and classes, but hadn't realized the power of mentorship in a professional setting," Wachs said. That changed when a leader at Zeiss "took me under her wing and offered technical training, friendship, camaraderie, as well as amazing advice for navigating the company."
Wachs is determined to "pay that forward." She began by mentoring incoming doctoral candidates at Rensselaer and is committed to providing similar support for women colleagues throughout her career.