Dr. Reva Johnson, PhD, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Bioengineering at Valparaiso University, is a 2021 KEEN Rising Star. The following is taken from her interview with Edmond J. Dougherty, Retired Professor of Practice and Director Engineering Entrepreneurship, Villanova University.
At first, Reva Johnson's future career path seemed anything but clear.
Her love of solving puzzles and problems might have been an early indicator that she might become a scientist or engineer like her father, but along with being excellent at math and science, she played in the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra and was exceptionally talented at sports.
In high school, a Physics teacher became a great influence. That teacher was an engineer and showed Reva that science and engineering could be both challenging and fun. By the time Reva was in late high school, she decided she wanted to pursue both a career in technology and play Division I soccer.
However, many Division I coaches prefer that their athletes not be burdened with the heavy time commitments required in science and engineering majors. Similarly, many Science and Engineering Deans want to ensure that students focus on their academics with extracurricular activities a far second in priority.
After some investigation, Reva discovered that Valparaiso University was happy to help her attain both academic and athletic distinction. After four years at Valpo, Reva had a successful collegiate soccer career and graduated with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. Later, she earned her MS and PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern University.
"A PhD was not on my radar until one of my professors suggested grad school," Reva recalled. "After thinking about it, I filled in some applications, visited some schools, and Northwestern just seemed like a really cool environment. They have a rehabilitation hospital where a lot of the biomedical engineering students work. It's called the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab now. At that hospital they have engineers and scientists working side by side with therapists, physicians, and patients. I thought that hospital was so cool."
Because of her skill and interest in teamwork, and in developing relationships with people, she felt that teaching was a natural fit for her. Reva returned to Valpo in 2015 and is now an Associate Professor of both Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering. “There was a job opening at Valpo. I interviewed there and in my conversations with them, I just was struck with how much they were willing to support me as a whole person. They talked about having seasons where you focus on research, seasons where you focus on your family, and seasons where you focus on teaching. I just really liked that mindset of being able to be a whole person who has multiple interests. When I interviewed at Valpo, I was pregnant, and so that was on the top of my mind too. I wanted a well rounded life, and that’s what Valpo offered.”
While still a Valpo mechanical engineering undergrad, Reva took a bioengineering course and some biology classes. The material in those classes intrigued her. She was especially intrigued by how the human brain could coordinate a person’s body so well: taking in, processing, and acting on tens and maybe hundreds of millions of bits of data per second from a wide variety of sensors (vision, hearing, touch, etc.). She concluded that the human body was the most amazing engineering system of all. From that point on Reva decided to focus her future studies on bioengineering.
During her graduate studies, she became particularly interested in research on restoring capabilities of people who have had a physical loss, such as a lost limb.
“I was trained in prosthetics from an angle of understanding how our brains coordinate movement and how devices like a prosthesis can fit into that system. I did a lot of Bayesian modeling. Much of my work is focused on how our brains develop dynamic models of our body and of the world around us. I am also interested in how uncertainty plays into those models. The way our brains coordinate movement is so incredible. And it seems like such an important problem when someone loses that ability. To help try to recover that ability is such an incredibly important problem to try to solve.”
Most of Dr. Johnson’s research has not been in physically building prostheses, but in researching how to control them.
For example, she has studied how to use electromyography (EMG) signals to control a prosthetic hand, to make it easier for a person to use the prosthesis. “I’m trying to figure out how to make EMG control as intuitive as possible for the user and then also on the feedback side of things. Right now most people using a prosthetic hand don't get any feedback from the hand. Those of us who do not need a prosthesis get touch and force feedback signals every millisecond. But for someone controlling a prosthetic hand, they have to use their vision to watch what they're doing all the time.
“An open problem remains on how to best deliver sensory feedback to the person using a prosthesis. It's difficult to use artificial feedback, something that's not from your own nervous system, to coordinate quick movements because your brain, as capable and fast as it is, has to constantly work to interpret this new artificial feedback.
“If you're trying to give the person feedback on their residual limb, which is the most natural place to get feedback, you’ll get a lot of crosstalk. Some people have tried putting vibration motors or some type of feedback actuator on different parts of the body, but that's a harder problem for your brain to solve. Even if it can be solved, the processing delay makes the feedback unnatural and not very useful.
“People have not yet found much success with vibration feedback, because the resolution is not good enough to make a difference. In the case of a prosthetic hand, for example, vibration feedback is no better than just observing the prosthesis with their own eyes. That's where some of my work was motivated—why bother to have all these attempts at sensory feedback for prostheses? We took a Bayesian approach of thinking about the uncertainty. If uncertainty of a type of sensory feedback is really high, then people won't rely on it. We need to figure out how to give them information that will reduce their uncertainty."
Dr. Johnson currently teaches both mechanical engineering and bioengineering classes, as well as some technical writing classes. “I've started to focus more on writing lately. It's something that's really rewarding to me.”
In fact, Reva plans to use the funding from the Rising Stars award to work with one of her colleagues from the Valpo English Department to develop a course where technical writing is combined with creative writing. She feels that technologists must improve the way they communicate their work to the general public.
“I like working in teams," Dr. Johnson enthused. "Being the oldest of four children and an athlete, teamwork comes really naturally to me. The team mindset has greatly affected the way that I approach engineering research and engineering education. A lot of my work is with clinical applications; to do any meaningful work you need to collaborate with clinicians. It’s a great situation for students to be able to have conversations with non-engineers, with clinicians, and with patients."
“I help advise senior design teams at Valpo and we collaborate with nursing faculty quite a bit. We work with a nurse practitioner named Dr. Christina Cavinder (Associate Professor, Assistant Dean of Graduate Nursing, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Valparaiso University), who works in the neonatal ICU (NICU) at the local hospital. She's got a great clinical perspective on what devices are needed, so the students go to the hospital and meet with her. The students get to see the actual NICU and see the isolettes where the babies are placed. That is a great experience for them.”
Dr. Cavinder agreed about the value of the Valpo teamwork. “I have worked with Dr. Johnson. She and her student team have been extra helpful for my research project on low-stress care for NICU infants. I cannot say enough about how she has helped.”
At Valpo, senior design involves a year-long project where students work for two semesters their senior year and have an external customer. "One external customer might be a nursing practitioner who has a problem they want solved at the hospital. Or sometimes the customers are local business people. In any case, under the program the students need to have conversations with their customer and develop a project proposal that includes a set of requirements that the student team will fulfill. It’s really good for students to have those conversations. Most of the time they talk to a non-engineer or non-technical person. They have to communicate project details in non-technical terms to make sure that they're actually understanding that person and communicating well."
“Teams spend much of the fall semester defining the problem and starting a virtual design. They build an initial prototype by the end of the Fall semester. In the Spring semester, the teams build a final full prototype, test it and present it to their customer. They're in teams of five or six students, and it's interdisciplinary. Mechanical, electrical, computer, bioengineers and nursing students all work together. We team teach across all those departments. The nursing students have to get their clinical hours at the hospital. So when our engineering students go to the hospital to visit and to learn about the requirements for the project, the nursing students often are there too.”
Not only is Dr. Johnson doing work in a traditional University way, such as teaching, doing research with undergrads, and collaborating with folks at the AbilityLab, she is taking the extra time and effort to once again strive to be a whole person by helping society.
“I’m doing a fair amount of thinking on diversity, equity and inclusion – developing ideas on how the systems of our education can be more equitable for more people. I consider how we can remove barriers. I want to help make Valpo more welcoming to more people.”
Dr. Johnson is currently writing a KEEN grant proposal with seven other KEEN institutions. She has found it exhilarating to interact with others across the network.
“It's been fun having those conversations. We have weekly meetings with people at George Washington University, UNC, UW-Tacoma, Olin College, and others. They all care about similar things - they care about students and care about being creative. It's been really rewarding to collaborate with them.
"KEEN has encouraged me to have dialogues with people from different backgrounds. The connections have empowered me to take risks and try new things. It has been especially nice for me to see the successful women in the KEEN, and to have them as mentors. Without KEEN it is difficult to find women mentors in engineering.”
While Reva was teaching a class that employed an entrepreneurial mindset (EM) project while building an artificial kidney, she decided to attend a KEEN workshop on Valpo’s campus to learn more about EM in the classroom. She particularly appreciated KEEN’s focus on creativity. She followed up by taking one of the KEEN workshops that integrated curriculum with the entrepreneurial mindset.
"I really loved how it was lighthearted, creative, and very open-ended. It was so much more creative than many other engineering or teaching workshops. I used to think a successful engineer had to be a pretty serious person, but I'm realizing now that's not the case.
“I have felt empowered to try creative methods that I previously would have thought were not serious enough. I've also learned practical tools for how to implement those creative methods. Even the types of software that I saw people use in workshops to gather student feedback on-the-fly was helpful to learn, as were techniques to formulate questions—how to get students to ask their own questions. Being more creative and encouraging creativity in the students has made teaching much more fun."