Student Spotlight - Marc Powell
Note: Interview was conducted before the COVID-19 crisis and was edited for clarity.
Marc Powell is currently a 6th year PhD student working in the Borton Neuromotion Lab. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, he did his undergrad at Georgia Tech in Biomedical Engineering. At Georgia Tech, he worked in a lab that did cell culture-based neuroscience and neuroengineering. He has additional experience in Boston at Draper, where he worked on building more physiologically relevant models of the kidney to better understand the reactivity of these cells to drugs.
Why did you choose BME?
I always knew I wanted to do engineering of some form or another. I think that the switch to BME probably came around my freshman year of high school. I had a really, really good biology teacher who I had for one class or another all throughout high school. This very much grew a love of biology into me and that, I think, very much steered me to BME. Also, when I first started biomedical engineering-- it still is but more so then-- it was a very new field and seemed like a very good opportunity to jump into and build my skill set there.
What made you decide to pursue a PhD?
I think that in my time at Draper I realized that, especially in BME, there're a lot of opportunities that open up when you have a PhD. A PhD by its nature is very much a research-oriented path. It’s exploring the cutting edge of what's out there, and in biomedical engineering, I find that a lot of people end up working on innovation - even if you go into industry, you’re working in companies like Medtronic, Boston Scientific-- companies that really thrive on the ability to advance and innovate. At Draper in particular, while it is a company, they also do a lot of academic-style research. I found that there’s almost a glass ceiling for that style of work, where if you don't have a PhD, you really don't get to climb up too high on the rungs. And that’s Draper specific. That’s not true for all jobs. I wouldn’t say that every BME needs to get a PhD; I found that for my own personal needs and what my goals were that made the most sense. That being said, I did consider going straight into industry after my undergrad, and ended up turning down a job while waiting to hear back from schools, but it was a consideration.
What do you work on in the Borton lab?
My research primarily focuses in an area called neuroengineering, and we focus on lots of different things, but my area specifically is building implantable devices for being able to record neural activity, as well as stimulate the brain or spinal cord in order to modulate neural activity. Brown has a very deep, rich history of what we call brain-machine interfaces. The BrainGate trials, for instance, are very well known. The idea there was to record specifically from motor cortex or motor-related areas of the brain to try and help people who are quadrapolegic or may have locked-in syndrome, for instance, from ALS. Or there’s a participant, a very famous participant, who had a brainstem stroke and became paralyzed. So trying to access info from the brain to then control a prosthetic limb or a mouse cursor on a screen. That’s very much a growing, developing field in neuroengineering. My research is working on building the devices that allow us to access that data. I’m particularly interested in how different areas of the brain work together. For instance, if I were to reach for my phone or reach for a glass of water off the table, if I pick it up I’m using sensory information about the thing I’m picking up to know how to control motor output. So if I pick it up and the glass is heavier than I expect, then it starts to slip and I grab it more tightly, I’m using information about the sensations that I’m feeling to control my motor output. In order for that to happen, the brain has to integrate information from a lot of different systems. In the case of a prosthetic limb, you would see how the limb is moving, and in that case, you have to use visual information to discern how you’re controlling it. So I’m building a device that allows us to access lots of areas of the brain at once and potentially be able to both record and stimulate the brain.
What do your daily activities look like as a PhD student?
The first couple years, I was taking classes-- it's a combination of classes and your research. After that it's pretty much research day-to-day. My day-to-day, when I come into the lab, I typically have one of several different projects going on at any given time, so I have to figure out which of those I want to be working on, and just kinda do it. I have weekly meetings with my advisor, so that's periodic. There are lots of seminars on campus to attend to try to get knowledge from other people. There's a lot of opportunity to collaborate, especially at Brown. I think that's one thing Brown’s really good at. If I’m having a particular challenge, I will go ask a neuroscience expert or an engineering expert and talk with them about it. But really when it comes down to it, most of what I do is spend time in the lab. That’s either in the workshop, where I'm soldering circuits together, or at my desk, where I’m coding something, or it's working with our machinist to build things. So several different facets for sure.
What would you say has been one of the biggest obstacles in your work?
I think that this is true for my work, but I think more generally for a lot of PhD students. The nature of a PhD is one where things often don't work for a long time. So probably one of the biggest challenges is to be persistent and recognize that part of a PhD is very much figuring out those challenges-- how do you make it work? And it can sometimes be a lonely endeavor, because again, the nature of a PhD is you're trying to become the world expert in a certain subfield. At a certain point you get to a stage where you can’t really ask for an answer from someone, you kinda have to figure that out, whether it's integrating knowledge from other experts, collaborating with others to come up with a novel answer to your question, or just good old-fashioned research, where in today's modern age of the internet, you're Googling a lot, or reading textbooks-- whatever it takes to get the answer. That is a challenge and is what makes a PhD rewarding! Once you do solve a problem, once you get that thing working, it is very rewarding, and I think that, to a large degree, is what you have to use to motivate yourself to get through a PhD.
Do you have any advice for undergraduates looking to pursue BME?
The first piece of advice is to hone in on one speciality or interest within BME. You get to experience a lot of different facets of engineering and biology. But the con there is that, as an undergraduate in particular, you run the risk of overgeneralizing and learning a little bit about everything, and not enough about any one thing to be very hireable when it comes to industry. It is certainly important to get as much breadth as possible, but to focus on building a strong skill set within a particular subdomain would be quite helpful. I would also advise that undergraduates take advantage of the many available internships and research opportunities to figure out what they want to do. Some may prefer to go straight into industry, where they can focus on one specific piece of a larger project under the guidance of a company, and feel a sense of accomplishment when that product is being used to help real people. Others may prefer to pursue a PhD, where they have much more independence on their projects, and they juggle being project manager and research engineer and technician all at once. But knowledge of what one prefers can come through internships and other experiences.
After graduation, Marc is not exactly sure what he wants to do. As of right now, Marc is leaning in the direction of industry, but is also considering starting his own company or doing a postdoc. A postdoc, he says, will give time for the young field of neurotechnology to develop more, in addition to give him time to develop his own skills.