Though she said it can be difficult being person of color and an engineering student, Janera Allen has made her mark during her four years at the University of Wisconsin.
UW researchers are working to better understand how to help stroke and epilepsy victims recover from their symptoms with brain scans and rehabilitative therapy. Allen, a undergraduate senior graduating this year, works as an assistant researcher in a lab to help improve the lives of these patients.
Allen is also a UW engineering student and president of the UW student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. She studies material science engineering, focused on biomaterials.
Groups like NSBE have propelled her to pursue engineering, she said.
“We are a small group, and it’s comforting seeing other people who look like you and come from similar backgrounds as you,” Allen said. “It’s just been empowering. We try to encourage each other to stick through it.”
Knowing she would be able to make a difference by moving up, Allen began participating more in the group and helping fellow students as she took up the position of president. She hopes members can continue to further the group’s efforts because they have positively impacted UW students.
Allen said it feels good to start to assume a role in science which other people can look up to, but there’s still work to be done.
“Despite whatever you may have gone through, despite not feeling like you deserve to be in this department or this major, you can do it as long as you have the right attitude, the right tools, the right resources,” Allen said. “But I think it’s really important to have people who look like you, who can inspire you to do great things.”
Allen has received multiple academic accolades at UW, including an Alliant Energy/Erroll B. Davis, Jr. Academic Achievement Award, an honor that recognizes students and instructors’ work throughout their time in school with a $3,000 scholarship and a Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity scholarship for students from underrepresented backgrounds.
She works in a radiology lab composed of six people working on brain imaging for studies in stroke and epilepsy.
For stroke studies, the lab facilitates rehabilitative medicine by using electrodes on patients while they play a game. Patients come in for a few appointments so scientists can monitor any improvements in motor function.
“Typically with stroke, you may lose those different functions, so we try to see over a certain time point if patients can generate that back,” Allen said.
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The new epilepsy studies, which started this summer, allows scientists to image the brain and see what areas are responsible for causing different seizures.
While the method is not preventative, it allows researchers to work on lessening the number of seizures a patient experiences.
“The goal of this is to see how we can improve functional connectivity, first by pinpointing where it occurs and trying to see how we can improve it, whether it be through medication, surgical treatment or dietary therapies,” Allen said.
The scan works in timed intervals, during which patients do task-based tests, such as solving a math problem.
Question-and-answer testing measures any improvements in patients. A radiologist examines the images from the fMRI scans and the patient’s performances to monitor any changes over time.
The lab currently works with 27 patients and some control subjects, but aims to expand the research to approximately 150 patients and 50 controls. The studies are done in collaboration with other departments, all with the goal of finding a way to treat epilepsy.
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Allen said her favorite aspect of her studies is working with the patients and seeing how they interact with the technology.
Patients sometimes feel frustrated if they think they are not performing as well as they should be or can grow impatient with the long testing procedure, Allen said. But it’s good to talk with them to understand how they have been impacted by stroke or epilepsy, she said.
She said she appreciates working to help people live their lives.
“It feels really good knowing that I can be part of something that’s bigger than myself,” she said. “Hopefully we can come across a technique of trying to figure out when seizures occur and how to limit the number.”