Melina Smith: Understanding Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

NAE Grand Challenge Scholar Profile

  • Major: Biomedical Engineering
  • Grand Challenge: Reverse-Engineer the Brain
  • GC Advisor: Dr. Marc Sommer
  • Project Title: The Effects of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation on Single Neurons

By Melina Smith

As a Grand Challenges Scholar, I am uniting my penchant for physics and engineering with my passion for neuroscience and psychology toward the goal of Reverse-Engineering the Brain. I work in the laboratory of Marc Sommer, professor of biomedical engineering, studying the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on single neurons in non-human primates. TMS is a safe, noninvasive way of stimulating the brain that has proven effective in treating depression and shows promise for both clinical therapy and cognitive research. Though TMS has a well-documented impact on behavior, its precise effect on the brain is not well understood.

"The academic rigor of an engineering program does not typically reward those who devote time to interdisciplinary and extracurricular engagement, so the Grand Challenge Scholars Program serves as a beacon for students who dare to pursue a more holistic education. It has been invigorating to have a program that offers such structure and encouragement, and I admire the founders of the program for acknowledging the need for a versatile and empathetic engineer."

Our project seeks to illuminate this functional gap in understanding, which should allow us to optimize TMS protocol as a therapeutic technique and as a tool of discovery. My engagement in research has strengthened my ability to apply engineering concepts in practice and has further expanded my academic curiosity. I am pursuing coursework in neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, all of which fall outside of the mandatory engineering curriculum. This has introduced me to new modes of thinking and allowed me to examine the challenges that face our world. It has been instrumental for me to step outside of the engineering curriculum and perform the needs finding that motivates the field of engineering.

I am a founding executive board member of Girls Engineering Change (GEC), a non-profit that seeks to close the gender gap in STEM fields and spread awareness of the Grand Challenges by showing young girls that a STEM career will give them the tools to change the world. I also traveled to Tanzania with DukeEngage and Engineering World Health, spending nine weeks learning Swahili, immersing myself in Tanzanian culture and repairing medical equipment in developing world hospitals. I realized that a deep commitment to serving our interconnected world is an integral part of being an engineer and that the components of my Grand Challenges Scholar portfolio have been an indispensable part of my development as an engineer and a human being.

The academic rigor of an engineering program does not typically reward those who devote time to interdisciplinary and extracurricular engagement, so the Grand Challenge Scholars Program serves as a beacon for students who dare to pursue a more holistic education. It has been invigorating to have a program that offers such structure and encouragement, and I admire the founders of the program for acknowledging the need for a versatile and empathetic engineer. Through this uniquely fulfilling and groundbreaking program, I have stimulated my own mind and hope to also stimulate the minds of others both literally—by enhancing TMS research—and figuratively—by sharing the wonders of engineering with the world.