Student’s Flexibility Leads Toward Greater Mobility for Others

  • Skye Thurston portrait

Research assistantship awardee has sights set on creating mobility tools for those with disabilities

Skye Thurston was inspired by her grandmother to pursue a career in biomechanical engineering. Her grandmother, who was paralyzed, was unable to partake in simple activities many take for granted, such as shopping and comfortably moving around her home.

“I really want to be able to help individuals with disabilities live a better life,” Thurston says. “My grandmother wasn’t able to walk, because she was paralyzed. She couldn’t maneuver around her home or a store; even in a wheelchair, it was very hard. I’ve always felt that something could have been done to help her live a better quality of life.”

Now, she is on the path toward making that goal a reality. Thurston is one of two students who is participating in the 2020-2021 Jefferson Science Associates Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship (JSA M/FURA). The assistantship supports individual projects that contribute to scientific or engineering aspects of the research program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

Thurston was homeschooled by her mother from kindergarten through high school. She enrolled at Virginia Union University to continue her studies, where she is pursuing a dual degree through a partnership program between VUU and nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. Through the program, she will earn a bachelors in mechanical engineering from VCU along with a degree in physics from VUU.

After graduation, she plans to study robotics and biomedical engineering in graduate school with an eye to earning a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, so that she can create robotics and devices to help disabled persons move around more easily.

“An exoskeleton would have been the best thing for my grandmother,” Thurston says. “But for many people with disabilities, they could have an easier time even with just something as simple as a different cane design or better-designed walking shoes.”

Entrée into Biomedical Technology

Through the assistantship, Thurston is working with Narbe Kalantarians, a VUU professor who is part of a collaboration that is developing the Gaseous Electron Multiplier (GEM) technology for imaging applications. GEM is, essentially, a bourgeoning technology that Kalantarians predicts will revolutionize nuclear physics research, cancer treatment, and other medical applications.

“You start with basically a very thin sheet of plastic, and you have micro-holes etched into it in a specific shape,” Kalantarians explains. “This sheet is in a box into which we run a gas mixture. Charged particles go through this gas and it ionizes the gas. The electrons get drawn to the plastic and it amplifies the signal. That signal is picked up by the readout electronics.”

Using GEM technology to measure doses of radiation in cancer treatments, for instance, can allow for more precise therapy, thereby reducing the damage to surrounding body tissue in treatments.

“With this assistantship, not only am I able to work on a project in biomedical technology that’s similar to what I want to do with the rest of my life, but the stipend also makes it possible for me to continue doing this research and go to school, while covering the cost of my basic needs during this difficult year,” Thurston says.

Physics education positively affecting mechanics coursework

Through the dual-enrollment engineering-physics program, Thurston has been able to use her education in physics to support her engineering coursework.

“Having the physics education at VUU helps me a lot in my mechanical engineering courses at VCU, because the teacher doesn’t have to spend time explaining the physics aspects of engineering.

“One thing I also think that’s interesting about physics is that it’s a science that covers so much of everything,” Thurston continues. “If you’re studying chemistry or biology, you learn certain specific things. But in physics, I’ve been able to learn about a wide breadth of science-related topics, including atoms, chemicals and the periodic table. Also, studying physics has helped me with the math needed for mechanical engineering.”

Having an in-depth education in both physics and mechanical engineering will help Thurston develop machines to help individuals with disabilities. Moreover, she appreciates that the dual-degree program is helping to broaden her network of mentors who share career options and encouragement with her.

“I get to speak to professors at both schools,” she says. “Everyone has been so helpful, and professors at both schools have shown me more options for my career.”

In turn, Thurston’s professors have been enthusiastic about both working with her as well as her career prospects.

“She is one of the joys of being a professor,” says Kalantarians. “Skye is very conscientious, and she has a lot of empathy.”

Kalantarians also notes that Thurston is the current vice-president of the VUU physics club and has been actively helping to establish the first National Society of Black Physicists chapter at the VUU campus. Kalantarians, for his part, is thrilled to be supporting up-and-coming female and minority physicists like Thurston.

“My wife would tell anyone what my pet peeve is: It’s wasted potential,” he says. “If I see a female or minority student who’s really into physics—and I know they could rock it in physics—and then if they tell me physics is only a hobby of dead European males, that’s bad. These students should be in physics—should be part of it.”

The JSA Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship is for minority or female full-time undergraduate students who wish to work on projects that are part of or are directly related to the scientific or engineering aspects of Jefferson Lab’s research program. This project is supported by the JSA Initiatives Fund Program, a commitment from the JSA owners, SURA and PAE. Initiatives Funds support programs, initiatives, and activities that further the scientific outreach, promote the science, education and technology of Jefferson Lab and benefit the lab's extended user community in ways that complement its basic and applied research missions.

Further Reading
JSA Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship
Virginia Union University
Jefferson Lab; GEM Detector Notes and Talks

By Carrie Rogers

Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office, 757-269-7263, kcarter@jlab.org

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Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, a joint venture of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. and PAE, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.