Fulbright Sends Mugler to Study Brain-Machine Interface in Germany

Emily Mugler Emily Mugler, who graduated last month from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, has won a 2006 Fulbright Scholarship to study neuroscience in southwestern Germany.

The award will take her to the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology at the Eberhard Karls University of Tuebingen for up to 12 months of research and study.

Mugler , a former Pratt Research Fellow, will explore the brain-machine interface in the lab of Niels Birbaumer. She will focus on the real-time information provided by electroencephalography (EEG) recordings, which measure electrical activity in the brain. She will also enroll in neuroscience courses at the university.

“I’m really excited to be working with Dr. Birbaumer,” Mugler said. “He has been very friendly and supportive throughout the Fulbright applications process, and he’s also famous for his research.”

An expert in neuronal plasticity and learning and neurophysiological communication systems, Birbaumer was once profiled by The New Yorker for his work into the use of EEGs to communicate with people, such as those with Lou Gehrig’s disease, who are otherwise “locked in,” or completely unable to communicate, Mugler noted.

Mugler said she learned of her award just three days before graduation and only after she had placed a deposit on an apartment in Chicago, where she had planned to start the biomedical engineering program at the University of Illinois. She will now defer her acceptance to the graduate program for a year.

Mugler said she became “hooked” on neurobiology during an introductory course taken at Duke as part of the life sciences requirement for her biomedical engineering (BME) major.

“It’s really interesting to learn about how you learn, and to understand the mechanisms of how you take in and react to the world around you,” Mugler said. “I’ve learned so much about myself and how I think about things from taking neuroscience courses.”

“Almost every day I would learn something that would really change the way I think about the world.”

That enthusiasm inspired Mugler to pursue the field through further study and research. As a Pratt Fellow in the Electrophysiology Lab of BME professor Patrick Wolf, Mugler worked on a project to decode the brain signals underlying the whisker movements of rats.

“The idea was to be able to decode the neural signals and predict the whisker movement before or as it occurred,” Wolf said. Rats use their whiskers in much the same way that people use their hands to feel around in the dark.

Mugler helped build instruments to measure the whisking motion, and helped train the rats to the behavior needed for study, Wolf said.

“Emily was multi-talented--equally able to engineer a circuit, manage the rats’ training, or write for The Chronicle,” Wolf said.

In addition to her BME degree, Mugler graduated with a neuroscience certificate obtained through Duke’s Undergraduate Neuroscience Program. Mugler performed research for nearly two years as a Pratt Research Fellow, in Pratt's signature competitive engineering research program.

Mugler also participated in numerous extracurricular activities while at Duke. She was sorority president of Delta Gamma, a member of the rock band Good Intentions and a player of club lacrosse.

Mugler also plans to take advantage of the Fulbright opportunity to explore her German roots. She will visit distant cousins who live in Schwäbisch Hall, a small city north of Stuttgart, where the Mugler family originally emigrated from, she said.

Mugler will spend the summer in her hometown of Hudson, Ohio, and take a German language refresher course before leaving the country in August.