What is your name and where are you from?

My name is Kelly Nair Rojas. I am from Caracas, Venezuela.

What degree are you pursuing?

Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering

Why did you decide to study biomedical engineering?

I want to help individuals with physical disabilities live independent lives through biomedical engineering (BME).

In June 2009, my parents and I fled Venezuela to Miami, Florida as political refugees. The resulting chaos and financial struggles eventually led to my parents’ divorce. I struggled to prioritize my personal and professional growth while facing the reality of living in a small storage unit. During this time, I was also dealing with bullying, sexual harassment, my sexual orientation, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Despite hardships, I regained strength by recalling my mother’s sacrifices to improve our lives, and I found motivation to learn English and excel academically. During junior year of high school, I joined Best Buddies Club, an organization that fosters friendships among individuals with and without disabilities. Interactions with these individuals inspired me to live life with tenacity and integrity. PTSD symptoms decreased and I started to embrace myself.

During school lunchtime, I visited my Buddies’ classroom and played the guitar for them. Throughout these interactions, I also learned about medical needs and financial struggles of individuals living with disabilities to obtain tools such as prosthetic limbs. These friendships fueled my passion for rehabilitation engineering.

What’s it like being a woman in engineering? Do you feel that your gender gives you a different perspective and/or experience from your male colleagues?

Throughout my time as an undergraduate student in FIU’s BME department, I have not experienced discrimination for being a woman. I realize that there are fewer women than men in BME courses I take. I am privileged to state that this lack of representation of women has never been an issue to me in engineering so far. I am encouraged by men also to obtain my BME degree and accomplish other goals.

What is the most challenging part about being an engineer?

Thus far, majoring in BME is not nearly as daunting as being a first generation student. Finding student resources such as the Student Support Services Program (SSSP), however, helped with my success at FIU. My SSSP advisers, Dr. Cruz, and Ms. Moira helped motivate me to stay on top of my courses. SSSP also provided tutoring services, a part-time job, and helped me find other resources such as the McNair Program.

McNair Program dedicates to exposing qualified undergraduate students to research. Though these research projects were challenging because of different reasons, including gaining basic programming skills and learning how to write effectively, I developed and honed skills that I can use in future research projects.

Are you a part of any clubs or organizations at FIU? Carried any leadership roles?

After realizing the importance that community involvement had in my life during high school, I joined the FIU Chapter of Mind&Melody, Inc. as a volunteer musician in Spring 2016. This organization helps to implement interactive volunteer-based music programs with educational and therapeutic benefits to improve the quality of life of individuals living with and without neurological impairments like dementia.

I led educational sessions on music theory concepts such as tempo. Usually, these individuals with neurological impairments spend most of their day in healthcare or assisted-living facilities watching TV or staring at a wall or playing with their fingers if they lack communication abilities. During music sessions, however, participants lighten up. These activities help them to socialize and stimulate motor function by dancing and clapping. Additionally, they follow along songs with simple instruments such as maracas. This constant use of simple instruments allows them to improve their dexterity.

As the 2016 Mind&Melody community service coordinator, I created opportunities for the organization, such as online fundraising and establishing a partnership with a Community Farmer’s Market. At the same time, this position enhanced my public speaking and organizational skills, and time management. In 2017, I became the Mind&Melody treasurer. With this role, I monitored the organization’s funding and distributed it to specific aspects of the organization. These aspects included ordering food for general body meetings and different events, ordering shirts, banners, and creating flyers as requested by the executive board. My input has been invaluable to the executive board in decision-making situations and accomplishing the organization’s goal. Currently, I serve as the chapter president. This role allows me to oversee activities, plan and enforce semester goals, and continue providing a platform to FIU students, so they can also bring passion and talent to music sessions.

At FIU, I also learned about the LGBTQ+ Mentoring Program, which provides LGBTQ+ students and allies with a platform to create a community space for everyone. Throughout my time as a mentee since Fall 2015, I have participated in different service activities. Some of the most memorable activities have included: Martin Luther King Day of Service, where we painted and cleaned a nonprofit organization named Pridelines and helping with gardening services at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus. Through this program, I have expanded my professional network and established meaningful connections, including friendships with my phenomenal mentors, Dr. Jose Rodriguez, and Dr. Gira Ravelo.

Do you have any female mentors or role models that you look up to?

My role model is my mother. Her primary teaching in my life has been to remain focused and persistent in making a transformative, positive impact in the world. In BME, my academic role model has been Dr. Jennifer Nichols, who helped guide my McNair Program Summer 2018 Project. I admire her dedication in the field and appreciate her efforts to guide my project.

Which part about your BME experience are you most proud of and/or excited for?

My experiences as a McNair Fellow was my springboard to pursuing research. During the summers of 2017 and 2018, I completed research projects linked to rehabilitation engineering. In 2017, I performed research led by Dr. Jacob McPherson at the Plasticity, Monoamines, and Recovery of Function Laboratory at Florida International University (FIU). The title of my project was Correlation between magnetic resonance imaging-based markers of spinal cord integrity and muscle composition in individuals with chronic spinal cord injury. In this project, we investigated potential relationships between magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-based measures of the spinal cord and MRI-based measures of leg muscle physiology in 14 individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI). Such relationships – or lack thereof – may hold prognostic value for determining recovery of motor function.

We used simple linear regression as an initial tool to determine whether measures of damage to the spinal cord associated with changes in muscle composition, including intramuscular fat and the diffusivity of fluid within the muscle. These metrics are potential markers of denervation, in which a muscle no longer receives neural input from the spinal cord. They may also relate to physical functions such as walking. We found a significant linear relationship between total spinal cord damage and muscle diffusion and ventral spinal cord damage and muscle diffusion. There was no relationship between dorsal spinal cord damage and muscle diffusion. We also found that individuals who retained some ability to walk after SCI exhibited higher muscle diffusion than individuals using wheelchairs for ambulation. Surprisingly, we found no correlation between muscle fat content and muscle diffusion. Future studies will extend these analyses to additional neurophysiological markers of motor impairment and performance.

In 2018, I performed research under the guidance of Dr. Jennifer Nichols, in her Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Lab at University of Florida. The topic studied in this research was transfemoral (above-knee) amputation. Many transfemoral (above-knee) amputees cope with daily challenges due to decreased physical function. It is more complicated to recover and ambulate with a transfemoral amputation than a transtibial (below-knee) amputation. Increased energy requirements, balance stability problems, a more complex prosthetic device, difficulty rising from a seated position, and, unlike with amputation levels in the tibia and the foot, prosthetic comfort while sitting, are factors that complicate the lives of these individuals.1 Whether transfemoral amputees optimally use their residual muscles following rehabilitation is not fully understood.

As a step toward evaluating residual limb muscle function, Dr. Nichols and I created a musculoskeletal model of a transfemoral amputee and developed a simulation framework to examine how cycling differs between healthy and amputee subjects.  Through inverse dynamics and computed muscle control simulations in OpenSim, an open source software system for biomechanical modeling, simulation, and analysis,2 we demonstrate that our simulation framework can be used to evaluate joint moments and muscle forces in healthy and amputee models.

With the information obtained from this research project, future studies may produce a deeper understanding of transfemoral amputees and their rehabilitation process. Results could potentially inform rehabilitation programs and eventually help in generating more patient-specific physical rehabilitation sessions.

 Do you have any advice for women in BME?

When I was younger, I heard a phrase that has stuck with me to this day; Do not fear too much, organize yourself. So, my advice is to organize yourself, find support groups, define your goal, and envision what you want to accomplish. Then, go forward and accomplish it.

[1]       The Transfemoral Amputation Level, Part 1. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.amputee-coalition.org/resources/transfemoral-amputation-part-1/

[2]       Delp SL, e. (2018). OpenSim: open-source software to create and analyze dynamic simulations of movement. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18018689 [Accessed Aug. 2018]