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Fulbright scholar develops technology to bring independence to people with disabilities

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VCU Engineering alumnus Shawn Joshi in front of Oxford University's Radcliffe Camera. (Photos courtesy of Shawn Joshi)

When Shawn Joshi was 14, his brother suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. Joshi was able to find technological solutions for the family’s day-to-day life, and has carried that idea with him to this day.

“While I never saw medical science perform any miracles for his condition, I would say there have been remarkable technologies that have made both his life and our family’s lives easier,” he said. “He has a standing wheelchair that can relieve tension and pressure as it stands and supports him. We have put Alexa in our house and have controlled lights and cameras. And while we can easily Google anything that comes to our mind, he too can ask Alexa for answers and play music any time he wants.” 

Bringing independence to people with impairments has been important to Joshi ever since.

Joshi rides a stationary bike in the lab where he is conducting his Fulbright research in Oxford.
Joshi rides a stationary bike in the lab where he is conducting his Fulbright research in Oxford.

“I am always trying to use technology to make life easier for any population that may have a harder time than others,” said Joshi, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012 with dual degrees in physics and biomedical engineering.

At VCU, Joshi worked with Paul Wetzel, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering in the VCU College of Engineering, to design glasses that could control a computer mouse via eye blinks and head movements. The device could bring independence to people with paraplegia or other disabilities.

Now, having completed his first two years of medical school and the first year of a doctoral program at Drexel University, Joshi is a Fulbright scholar studying in England, where he works at the Oxford Institute of Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Research.

“I chose to become an M.D./Ph.D. because I want to stay current in medicine, and always know where technology can be brought into the field to improve it or make it more efficient,” Joshi said. “I wanted to apply for a Fulbright scholarship because it would allow me a closer look at how other countries view health care and disability and bring practical solutions to these issues.”

Joshi visits Oslo, Norway, taking advantage of his nine-month Fulbright Scholarship in Europe.
Joshi visits Oslo, Norway, taking advantage of his nine-month Fulbright Scholarship in Europe.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is part of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program provides research, study and teaching opportunities in more than 140 countries to recent graduates and graduate students.

Joshi applied for the scholarship to work on a new portable neuroimaging device for children with a motor learning disability. It was the perfect opportunity to use his medical knowledge and apply biomedical engineering-related solutions.

“The project is the epitome of translational medicine and research,” he said.

The project uses a new device known as a functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy to measure brain activity. Unlike an MRI, this device can be used in any environment and setting with the subject moving freely to give a better idea of what is happening in the brain outside of a rigid, confined box. The team is using functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy to objectively assess the effectiveness of a physical training intervention, such as an exercise program, on children with low coordination or possible motor learning disabilities. Joshi and his team use the spectroscopy and MRIs to see what the brain looks like before and after a few weeks of training.

And while in Great Britain, he’s actually working on another project. The second study, which was unplanned when he left for the United Kingdom, involves smart wheelchairs.

“I was speaking to professor Helen Dawes [director of the Centre for Movement, Occupational and Rehabilitation Sciences at Oxford Brookes University] about the possibilities of smart wheelchairs,” Joshi said. “Within just a week, she introduced me to her colleagues at University College London, where we all then designed a study, which is well underway.”

The study uses a smart wheelchair — a hybrid of a traditional manual wheelchair and a full-powered one. It tests how the “smart” accelerative boost of the new wheelchair can impact the user’s physical and mental workload while traversing a complex environment, such as ramps or cones.

Joshi demonstrates how the functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy device is worn.
Joshi demonstrates how the functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy device is worn.

“Basically we created an obstacle course, and the participants will be wearing the [functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy] device while completing the obstacle course in either a ‘smart’ setting or a ‘traditional’ setting,” Joshi said.

His dedication to helping others led him to the Peace Corps before he entered medical school. From 2012 to 2014, Joshi taught math and science in Lesotho, where he also worked on solar technology, designed an app in a hackathon — for which he won first place — and organized a large HIV/AIDS testing event/soccer tournament.

When he returns stateside, he plans to finish his doctoral degree with Hasan Ayaz, Ph.D., an associate research professor at the Drexel School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, and then finish his medical degree. During that time, Joshi also plans to design disability technologies and applications of his own, while continuing to volunteer with Project HOME in Philadelphia, which aids people who are chronically homeless and need assistance in harsher winter months.

“Understanding someone’s position — patients, rural, poor, homeless — allows us to know what is wanted, needed and feasible, as those can often be different,” Joshi said. “If I can know these things about the people I want to help, then I can find the many ways technology can be useful as it has been for my own life.”

 

VCU’s National Scholarship Office provides support for VCU alumni, graduate students and undergraduates who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships. Interested students and alumni can contact the office at natlscholar@vcu.edu or (804) 828-6868.