Markin undergrads get first-hand experience using cutting-edge robotic technology

University of Calgary students Justin Tan and Ash Kolstad share a common passion for neuroscience research involving robotics.

Participating in health and wellness research is an opportunity a growing number of undergraduate students are seizing on campus.

By Cari Din and Stephanie Vahaaho, University of Calgary February 26, 2018

Ash Kolstad and Justin Tan are currently participating in the fall/winter 2017-2018 Markin Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) in Health and Wellness under the guidance of Tyler Cluff. Cluff is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and full member of Hotchkiss Brain Institute, leading inquiry in the neuroscience of motor control and learning. Through involving Tan and Kolstad in his research program, Cluff is enabling the hands-on development of research skills for these undergraduate students.

Tan investigates uncovering the effects of stroke
Tan is a second-year student in the Biomedical Sciences program. He learned about the Cluff lab while searching for a faculty mentor involved in neuroscience research. What piqued Tan’s interest in Cluff’s work was the combination of neuroscience and robotics techniques to study motor learning.

Markin USRP students Ash Kolstad, left, and Justin Tan combine neuroscience research with technology under the mentorship of Tyler Cluff, seated. Stephanie Vahaaho, University of Calgary

Tan has spent the past eight months using the KINARM (Kinesiological Instrument for Normal and Altered Reaching Movements) exoskeleton to quantify the motor learning patterns of healthy individuals and stroke survivors while they perform reaching tasks.

The KINARM is a novel piece of robotics equipment that allows investigators and clinicians to create custom tasks that objectively assess sensory and motor impacts of stroke and brain injury. It is used extensively by other UCalgary researchers, including Sean Dukelow (Clinical Neurosciences) and Adam Kirton (Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute).

Because we know very little about how stroke influences motor learning, Cluff is mentoring Tan through an investigation of the effects of stroke on the basic mechanisms of motor learning. Tan’s project involves comparing the motor learning patterns of stroke-impaired participants with healthy age-matched individuals. During the Markin studentship, Tan aided in designing experiments, interacting with research participants, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting research findings at national conferences.

“I would recommend anyone who has a passion for research to apply for this program. The Markin USRP has provided me with a fulfilling experience by allowing me to pursue research on a topic I am genuinely interested and invested in,” says Tan. In the future, Tan hopes his research contributes to patient-centred rehabilitation programs that effectively identify and target impairments in motor learning.

Kolstad studies long-term effects of sport-related concussion
Kolstad is Tan’s Markin USRP peer in the Cluff lab this session. He is studying the potential long-term health and wellness effects of sport-related concussion in youth ice hockey players. Kolstad feels that the undergraduate studentships offered by the Markin USRP program facilitate a hands-on learning process that includes developing research posters and manuscript writing skills — aspects of scholarly inquiry many students only encounter post-undergrad.

The fourth-year undergraduate in the Faculty of Kinesiology is using KINARM robotics technology to assess whether having a sport-related concussion at an early age impacts the growth and development of sensory, motor and cognitive function in youth hockey players: “We are looking at basic functioning of sensory, motor, and cognitive systems through participants’ natural movement behaviours to see if having a history of concussion causes deficits as we mature.”

Kolstad says his research will contribute to our understanding of the complex nature of this brain injury and whether suffering a concussion in youth sport affects development that may impact experiences later in life.

Student Research Mini-Symposium slated for April 6
Tan and Kolstad are two of 14 Markin USRP scholars who will be showcasing their fall/winter 2017-2018 research at the upcoming Markin USRP Student Research Mini-Symposium. If you are curious to see their results or are interested in how to get involved in undergraduate research, come by the mini-symposium on Friday, April 6 at the Rozsa Centre from 2 to 3:30 pm.

Source University of Calgary

Also see
Robotic device maps how young stroke patients sense position
Clinical Applications – KINARM Exoskeleton in b•kin Technologies

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