Engineered for brain science

Contact: Diana Hearit
Aug. 1, 2017

Read more about WMU researchers and their ongoing work in the WMU Magazine.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Alexandra Ferguson wants to blaze a trail into the final frontier of the human body—the complex and still little-known realms of the brain.

And even at 22 years old, she, along with the help of other researchers at WMU, has made discoveries she hopes will one day lead to more efficient and effective treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s and conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

“I’m drawn to the complexity of the brain,” she says. “We use it to think, to reason, to problem solve, but we know so little about it. It’s my goal to understand it better.”

The Livonia, Michigan, native and daughter of a Ford Motor Co. electrical engineer, Ferguson thought she would study one of the natural sciences. But after committing to WMU in 2012 as a Medallion Scholar, she followed in her father’s footsteps, graduating in the spring of 2016 with a degree in electrical engineering.

That same year, Ferguson became one of only 180 students nationwide to receive the prestigious National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. And this year, she earned a master’s degree in the same field through a one-year, accelerated graduate program offered in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Now, she’s off to perhaps the most prestigious technical school in the world— the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—to begin a doctoral program where she plans on building on her expertise developed as an undergraduate at WMU.

“Neuroscience is an exciting field right now,” she says. “It encompasses physics, chemistry, math, biology and many other disciplines. I see neuroscience as a melding of these fields, where researchers apply tools from many disciplines to study the brain.”
During her sophomore year, Ferguson began working in the Neurobiology Engineering Laboratory of Dr. Damon Miller, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

In collaboration with faculty members in math and biology, including Dr. John Jellies, a professor of biological sciences known for his research into leech neural circuits, Ferguson and Miller applied mathematical models and fine-tuned delicate procedures and techniques to study how individual neurons respond to patterns of electricity.

Their goal is to find smaller electrical stimulation currents that yield the same neuron responses as higher currents in leech neurons. Doing so could have the potential to treat neurological diseases, possibly impacting therapies like deep brain stimulation, used in maladies such as Parkinson’s disease
and epilepsy.

“My professors at WMU were invested in me and my success,” Ferguson says. “The smaller class sizes allowed for me to be involved in my learning more. I felt like they really cared.

“To be involved with such important research at such a young age, and (with projects that have) the potential to help many people, I think really shows how much my professors believed in me.”

To say that Miller, who was a mentor and faculty advisor to Ferguson, is impressed with her is an understatement.

“I smile every time I think of her heading to MIT,” Miller says. “Students are a joy to work with, but some rise to the top and are just extraordinary. She is one of the rare ones, and now she’s heading to one of the top technical schools in the world.”

He adds with a laugh, “We tried really hard to keep her here. Maybe she’ll hire me some day.”

Like most remarkable students, Ferguson was involved in much more than just academic pursuits during her time at WMU.

The litany of activities and student organizations she immersed herself in shows that she squeezed every last drop out of her time in Kalamazoo: the Society of Women Engineers, three-time participant in Alternative Spring Break, volunteer work in the community and five years as a trumpet player in the Bronco Marching Band, playing in front of 80,000 people at this year’s Cotton Bowl.

Of that last experience, she says, “It was incredible. The whole (football) season was like magic.”

But now the hallowed halls of MIT await her. When she’s completed her doctorate, Ferguson says she sees herself back in the world of academia, teaching and researching, following, in many ways, in the footsteps of her mentor.

Ask her if she’s nervous about embarking on this new adventure  and she shrugs her shoulders.

“It’s going to be tough, for sure,” she says. “I’m going to be with the best of the best. But it’s all going to be fine, I think. I don’t think I would be in this position— the path of research—if I had gone to some place other than WMU for undergraduate study. But here I am, and I’m prepared.”