Minor program at PI-Lab

Program title: Introduction of Photoacoustic Imaging for Neuroscience Research

Program PI: Dr. Junjie Yao, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering

Funding source: NSF CAREER Award CBET 2144788

Program size: 3-5 high school students per year

Program duration: 06/2023-06-2028

Objectives: Supported by the NSF CAREER Award, the program’s educational component will use the novel photoacoustic imaging technology and new knowledge on the brain hemodynamics as a gateway, and focus on teaching and training young students from various backgrounds in understanding imaging-enhanced neuroscience and encouraging their interest in pursuing STEM careers. Seamlessly integrated with the research objectives, the educational objectives will develop high-school training modules on imaging-enabled neuroscience, in collaboration with local schools and national foundations. The program will develop teaching materials to introduce brain imaging technologies and basic brain functions, via interactive research-data-based exercise. The program will develop and disseminate curricular resources and lab research exercise that will allow young students to participate in acquiring, processing, and understanding the experimental data of brain functions. Ultimately, the hands-on research opportunities will engage a wide diversity of students with different backgrounds, and will have long-lasting impact on students in the pursuit of STEM goals. We will partner with Duke and local school infrastructure and programs to engage a diverse population of students and provide research opportunities both remotely and on campus. The program will particularly engage underrepresented minority students in the research projects, such as the Girls in Optics Program by Duke Fitzpatrick Institute of Photonics.

Education Objective 1: Teaching the brain imaging curricula in the classroom

The objective is to engage high school students so that they can pursue further education in a variety of STEM fields. We will develop an engaging, hands-on teaching curriculum that allows students to develop basic computer coding skills for analyzing the brain imaging data with basic data analysis methods.

For high school students, a hands-on interactive class will introduce students to the basic concepts in brain imaging, neuroscience and computation. Interactive teaching will engage the students more deeply in individual engineering disciplines. We will create an electronic interactive platform using the Matlab GUI toolbox, where the goal is to label the virtual point targets detected by SURPAT to delineate the blood vessels within the super-resolution photoacoustic brain images and to assess the accuracy of the labeling. At the ‘Beginner’ level, the students will be tasked to label the point targets and vessels based on the morphology. The students will be asked to evaluate the minimal number of image frames in order to accurately ‘reconstruct’ the super-resolution vessels. At the ‘Expert’ level, the students will be tasked to label the blood vessels as arteries and veins, based on their oxygenation level and blood flow speed/direction. At the ‘Super-expert’ level, the students will be tasked to assign the labeled blood vessels to functional regions based on the Allen’s brain anatomy and delineate the relationship of these functional regions based on the vascular connectivity. The students will accomplish the goals by interacting with the real imaging data through a programmed user interface. After each round of labelling, the students will receive feedback from the platform about the accuracy of their labels. Interactive discrimination of brain vasculature network will introduce the students to the basics of brain’s hemodynamics with strong visual manipulatives; this ‘appetizer’ activity will start the students’ initial interest in brain. Then, in the process of hands-on activities, the class will educate the students about the brain’s morphological and functional structure, the hemodynamics and metabolism in the brain, and the physiological and pathological alterations in neurological diseases. The lessons will also introduce the students to the combination of engineering technologies that originally recorded the brain data of the interactive platform.

We will develop and disseminate the lesson plans in collaboration with the Shodor Foundation, a national organization with the necessary infrastructure to develop a wide-ranging set of electronic curricula in math, engineering and science. We will first work with the foundation to develop the course content for high school students using their Apprenticeship Workshop; then we will take advantage of the foundation’s internet distribution channels to disseminate the course contents online. The Shodor Foundation’s annual apprenticeship workshop, which takes place 15 minutes away from our Duke campus, invites 25-30 local high school students to pilot the course materials and then program the electronic lesson plan. I will collaborate with the foundation to run at least an apprenticeship workshop per year and construct the interactive lesson plan described above. We will distribute the plan using two of the Shodor Foundation’s channels, both for in-person and virtual engagement. First, the foundation will use the lesson plan in their SUCCEED program; the foundation hosts summer lessons for high school students using the plans developed within the foundation. Second, the foundation will host the electronic online version of the lesson plan on their website as part of the Computational Science Education Reference Desk program. The Shodor lesson plan site usually receives over 5 million views per year; this high traffic will help disseminate the proposed lesson worldwide.

Assessment: We will work with Dr. Jessica Sperling of the Duke University Social Science Research Institute to develop a theory of change, a formalism that measures the desired change in outcomes, for all of my education activities. Because the student audience in this aim changes with each workshop or class, we will bypass long-term tracking and will instead focus on measuring short-term desired outcomes, including increased receptiveness to diverse scientific curricula, increased interest in brain imaging topics, and positive shifts toward careers in STEM. For each apprenticeship workshop and undergraduate classes, we will create surveys that ask participants to state their preference for each of the above measures. We will then distribute these surveys before and after the workshop or class to quantify the effect of my proposed activity. We will also include the same survey in the online version of the lesson plans distributed through Shodor Foundation. Analysis of the survey data will direct future changes to the curriculum.

Education Objective 2: Training next-generation imaging scientists in the lab

The second education objective is to further inspire high school students through the foundations built by Education Objective 1. Once students demonstrate elevated interest in brain imaging and the associated engineering topics, the goal is to broaden and strengthen that interest for a diverse student population with varied engineering and science background. Our strategy for generating a robust student pipeline has two parts: 1) Provide research training opportunities in our lab; 2) Use those research opportunities to recruit young students from under-represented communities in engineering and science.

To supply a wide-ranging set of research activities at the undergraduate and high school levels, we will partner with the extensive student research programs developed by Duke University and the local high schools through Shodor Foundation. I will host students through five research outreach programs. 1) We will match the research to the Duke University School of Engineering Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. This NSF-funded program hosts a cohort of ~10 undergraduates per year from under-represented groups. 2) We will match the research to the Duke University Undergraduate Research program from the Vice Provost Office, which provides matching funds for student research and travel. 3) We will advertise the computational work with the Huang Fellows program and the Woo Fellowship program within the Duke School of Engineering. Objective 2 of the research plan focuses on computational methods and matches the Huang and Woo fellowship program’s interest in public health. 4) We will interface with the internship program of Shodor Foundation, which hosts high school students in Durham at Duke research labs. We will promote coding and electronics research through this internship program. 5) We will recruit the high school students to the research lab through the outreach programs by Duke Fitzpatrick Institute of Photonics (FIP), including the local SPIE/OSA student chapters and Photonics Field Day program. We have already hosted students through the first three programs described above. Our experience and prior affiliation with these programs will help host students to engage the research of this proposal.

Assessment: Again, collaborating with Dr. Jessica Sperling, we will assess whether diverse research opportunities direct students toward STEM careers. We will assess the short-term change in career outcomes using the focus group format. I will interview students at the beginning of their research terms to gauge their interest in a STEM career. We will interview students at the end of their appointments to measure their change in career interests and their engagement with research. We will also conduct medium-term follow-ups that assess career outcomes after graduation.

Our experience with high school education and outreach: We will use the above opportunities to bring diverse students into research—a strategy that has already proven successful in our lab. We have been lecturing at a local high school City of Medicine Academy in the last 4 years, which has a large percentage of minority students. We have mentored five high school students, including 4 women. Outcomes have been strong for the female students. We will continue engaging the outreach program that highlight female students, such as Introduce Girls to Photonics by FIP and Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Science by Duke.