From active duty to the research lab: The CNT provides opportunities and mentorship for veterans

Aleenah Ansari

Every year, the CNT provides a 10-week immersive research experience for veterans interested in neural engineering. In addition to attending lectures and seminars, program participants work in research laboratories across the UW campus and are mentored by a graduate student, a post-doctoral trainee and a professor. The program culminates with participants presenting their research findings in a symposium that is open to the UW community.

After enlisting in the military in 2010, Joshua Dreessen, now a senior studying neuroscience at the University of Washington (UW), thought his future career was set. After his time in the military, Dreessen envisioned himself returning to school with the long-term goal of developing orthopedics and prosthetics. However, after breaking his back and being diagnosed with a spinal cord injury in 2016, Dreessen’s military career abruptly came to an end. He had to give up weightlifting, rock climbing and even driving his Jeep because he could not use the manual transmission without experiencing pain or numbness.

I never imagined that I’d have these kinds of opportunities when I was getting out of the service. As I started looking around, I realized that there are boundless opportunities, and it’s incredible.

- UW undergraduate and REV participant, Joshua Dreessen

Dreessen learned more about his injury through conversations with his neurosurgeon and research of his own, which piqued his interest in the field of neuroscience. This promising new academic trajectory led Dreessen to uproot his life in California and move to the UW for its neuroscience program. There, he discovered the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) and the Perlmutter Lab, which focuses on neuroplasticity and neural mechanisms of voluntary hand and arm movements.

“Trying to find an effective, consistent and broadly applicable treatment for spinal cord injuries is important to me,” Dreessen said. “I think we can make some real strides in the work that we’re doing.”

Over the summer, Dreessen participated in the CNT’s Research Experience for Veterans (REV) program for current university students who have served in the United States Armed Services. During this 10-week program, REV students conduct research, take a scientific communications class, and present their findings at a research symposium that is open to the public.

“I never imagined that I’d have these kinds of opportunities when I was getting out of the service,” Dreessen said. “As I started looking around, I realized that there are boundless opportunities, and it’s incredible,”

Throughout the program, REV students are invited to attend additional events such as the CNT’s end-user roundtable and a lecture series by the UW Institute for Neuroengineering that focuses on the road to graduate school.

“It’s a great way for these students to gain experience and bolster their CVs and resumes so they have a strong application when they apply to graduate school,” said Eric Chudler, the executive director and education director of the CNT and research associate professor in the UW Department of Bioengineering.

This year’s REV students are Dreessen and Madison Bravo, a senior majoring in neuroscience. For many veterans like them, the impact of neurotechnology and the CNT’s research is personal. Bravo said that her interest in neural engineering research stemmed from her experience as a Pashtu linguist for military intelligence, and she hopes to develop cost-effective technology that’s available to everyone.

“I studied as a Pashtu linguist for five years, and people in Afghanistan often experience mine explosions and loss of limbs,” Bravo said. “I thought that [neural engineering] connected both of my worlds.”

Conducting pivotal research in neural engineering

Bravo conducted research in the lab of CNT Co-Director, Chet Moritz, which focuses on spinal cord rehabilitation using optogenetics, a research technique characterized by the use of light to control cells in living tissues. For Bravo’s project, she compared axonal growth in rats that received spinal cord stimulation with rats that did not receive stimulation. Conducting research through the CNT REV program enabled Bravo to use a different skillset than what’s required for her neuroscience courses.

The research isn’t just for someone down the street. It could be life-changing for people in countries all over the world.

- UW undergraduate and REV participant, Madison Bravo

“It’s more challenging because it forces you to be more creative with the questions you ask,” Bravo said. “I also get to use the knowledge I’ve acquired in class, and it makes me think about things I’ve learned in a more complex setting.”

Throughout Bravo’s REV experience, she developed necessary skills for biology research like the use of animal models to understand the development and progression of spinal cord injuries. She also used immunohistochemistry, which is the use of antibodies to stain certain proteins in a rodent’s spinal cord. Through her time in the REV, she’s developed specific strategies for actively considering the ethical implications of her work, which aligns with the CNT’s strong focus on neuroethics.

“You can create a space where research is conducted in a productive way, all while minimizing harm,” Bravo said. “I really liked the neuroethics conversation because that’s the future of neuroscience. We haven’t always [prioritized] neuroethics, [and] accessibility in the field of research. The fact that people are thinking about that upfront is [vital].”

For Bravo, her experience as a linguist who studied the language and culture of Afghanistan informs the way she thinks about her research and its far-reaching impact.

“It puts things into perspective,” Bravo said. “The research isn’t just for someone down the street. It could be life-changing for people in countries all over the world.”

Creating learning opportunities beyond research

In the Perlmutter Lab, Dreessen enjoyed the autonomy of working on his own research project, which focused on immunohistochemistry. Dreessen investigated how the location, expression and abundance of proteins are impacted by an injury or electrostimulation protocols.

“Over the summer, we got to build our own research project from the ground up, which enabled me to figure out if this was a career field I want to pursue,” Dreessen said.

Through the research process, Dreessen learned a different kind of decision- making process from what he was used to in the military, where he learned to make a choice and run with it. Contrastingly, his research mentor recently told him that an hour spent reading a paper is a week saved making mistakes at the workbench.

If we have a breakthrough and don’t share it, we’ve only helped ourselves. The goal is to push the frontiers and boundaries, and we need to do it as a unified community,

- UW undergraduate and REV participant, Joshua Dreessen

“In research, you have to be more methodical about every step because you’re using money, resources and time that’s not just your own,” Dreessen said. “It’s the money of taxpayers and your coworkers’ time and effort.”

In addition to conducting research, REV students also attend a scientific communication class, where they learn more about how to communicate the impact of their work through posters and research presentations.

“I’ve learned more about what it takes to design and implement protocols,” Dreessen said. “The class has also provided a vast range of examples of scientific posters and papers as well as opportunities to learn from peers in the cohort.”

REV students also work with a mentor in their lab who can guide them during the research process and potential next steps in their career like graduate school. For Bravo, she’s received advice from her lab’s principal investigator (PI) and mentor Sarah Mondello about balancing a career in research with personal responsibilities.

“My mentor just had a baby, so seeing her juggle that has put things into perspective,” Bravo said. “Research may be your job, but you’re going to have a life outside of it. My PI and my mentor have shown me different pathways, so I can achieve my goals and be fulfilled in different areas of my life.”

At the end of the summer, REV students presented their findings at a research symposium that was open to the entire UW community. Having this dialogue among researchers and the community is an integral part of the research process.

“If we have a breakthrough and don’t share it, we’ve only helped ourselves,” Dreessen said. “The goal is to push the frontiers and boundaries, and we need to do it as a unified community.”

A lot has changed for Dreessen since his time in the military. However, he knows one thing for sure: spending last summer at the CNT was a dream come true.

“A year and a half ago, I never would have guessed that I would be in this fellowship doing this work over the summer, and getting paid to do it,” Dreessen said. “It’s amazing to see the pieces come together.”

Learn more about the REV by contacting Eric Chudler.