Analyzing data brings opportunity for mechanical engineering student

April 17, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Clive Matsika, a mechanical engineering major in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, was one of five students globally to be awarded a Facebook National Society of Black Engineers Analytics Scholarship to attend NSBE’s 45th annual convention in Detroit. Mechanical engineering major Clive Matsika (right) had the opportunity to work with Dan Zigmond, director of analytics for Instagram, at the 2019 National Society of Black Engineers convention in Detroit thanks to a scholarship awarded by Facebook. Photo courtesy of Clive Matsika Download Full Image

Matsika didn’t just attend the convention while in Detroit, he received an invitation to a private event with Facebook’s data analytics team. Dan Zigmond, the director of analytics for Instagram — which is owned by Facebook — served as Matsika’s mentor during the event.

“My hope was to maximize my time with Dan and his team,” Matsika said. “Through working with him, I learned more about a day in the life of a data engineer/scientist and about analytics opportunities at Facebook and beyond, especially for those who are coming from a non-computer science background.”

Matsika says that he is very thankful for the opportunity to attend the conference and work directly with analytics professionals.

“I could not believe it because they were only looking for five individuals from the entire world,” he said. “With my mechanical engineering degree, which in the eyes of many is perceived to have nothing to do with data analytics, I was really surprised and excited at the same time.”

Matsika received congratulatory messages from around the world, which helped him to realize how significant it was to receive the scholarship. Now Matsika has his sights set on something even bigger.

“It’s the first step toward getting that Nobel Prize. I know the prize has my name on it and it is just a matter of time before I collect it.”

Growing up in Zimbabwe

Matsika’s big dreams began when he was growing up in Zimbabwe, where he says every parent wants their child to become a lawyer, engineer, medical doctor or accountant. However, Matsika had difficulty choosing just one profession. 

In eighth grade, he told his parents that he wanted to become an engineer and a part-time accountant after getting his first exposure to the art of systematic financial recordkeeping from his mother’s old accounting textbooks. Together with his mom, who he called an “accounting guru,” Matsika studied an entire textbook in less than three months.

“I loved how this knowledge tallied with what I learned from my math classes,” Matsika said. “I began to love both science and business, and after some time, I realized that science and business complement each other. I found what is common to both is data analytics, which in turn made me love both fields.”

man's portrait

Data analytics as a mechanical engineer at ASU

Finding commonality between two areas he enjoyed helped Matsika decide on a major: mechanical engineering.  

“A lot of people think that mechanical engineering is all about building, creating, designing and testing mechanical devices, but it is definitely more than that,” Matsika said. “If it was not for mechanical engineering, I would not have been exposed to the numerous lab sessions and relevant classes I’ve had here at ASU.”

Matsika believes his mechanical engineering skills helped to set him apart from those who studied more analytical majors and may even have played a role in why he was selected for the Facebook NSBE Analytics Scholarship.

“In my endeavors, I am not trying to compete with mathematicians, statisticians and data scientists who may have been taught advanced analytics through their majors,” he said. “I simply use what I already know from mechanical engineering as my competitive advantage in analytics.”

Analytics at ASU

Matsika found ways to share his passion for data analytics through several jobs and activities on campus, including working as a section leader for ASU 101 and a teaching assistant for FSE 100, both introductory courses for new students. He also worked as a tutor at the Office of Student-Athlete Development, helping ASU student athletes boost their academic performances in engineering and statistics.

These roles required him to work with large data sets and solve complex problems, but by his junior year, Matsika wanted more of a challenge.

He joined the lab of Professor Hanqing Jiang, a mechanical and aerospace engineering faculty member in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy.

“Mentored by Dr. Jiang and working alongside other students, I created an organogel that serves as a lithium ion battery separator,” Matsika said. “The project itself involved measuring a lot of data and analyzing it — for instance, how to come up with ion conductivity from a battery cell that I would have made from scratch.”

The result, a battery separator with high ion conductivity, became Matsika’s Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative project. The project also became the basis of his thesis for Barrett, The Honors College.

“I loved this research opportunity as it simultaneously fed my innate interests in both engineering and data analytics,” Matsika said. 

two people talking at poster session

Clive Matsika presented his organogel research project at the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative Fall 2018 Symposium. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Not content to work on just one research project, Matsika joined the research group of Patrick Phelan, assistant dean of graduate programs in the Fulton Schools and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. From there, he was hired to work in the Industrial Assessment Center (IAC) at ASU.

Through the IAC, Matsika conducted site visits to engineering firms and provided evaluations of manufacturing and industrial facilities to reduce costs by increasing energy efficiency, improving productivity and decreasing waste using industrial data. He was “able to see the importance of data analytics to every firm that we interact with.”

Matsika’s time as an undergrad at ASU will be coming to an end in May, but he will continue to find ways to use data to make a difference.

“My graduation is a few weeks away,” Matsika said. “I hope to seize more opportunities and really think of the long-term plans of how I can use analytics to make this world a better place.”

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Epigenetic study reveals potential for earlier diagnosis in Parkinson’s disease

April 17, 2019

Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder, largely affects movement and causes irreversible neuronal damage. It may start with a tremor or it may be manifested in a speech problem; however, by the time symptoms are evident, it is too late to halt the course of the disease. 

Parkinson's originates from the loss of neurons releasing dopamine. Because these neurons control coordination in movement, their loss results in a multitude of movement-related deficiencies. PD Parkinson's disease originates from the loss of neurons releasing dopamine. Because these neurons control coordination in movement, their loss results in a multitude of movement-related deficiencies. Download Full Image

Although there is medication to treat the symptoms of Parkinson's, there is no known cure. To mediate this problem and propose more effective therapeutic strategies, an earlier diagnosis is key.

“One of the biggest issues with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease is that diagnosis is mostly clinically based, and it comes late in the disease — the brain is already degenerated, and it is extremely difficult to restore brain function at that stage,” said Travis Dunckley, an assistant research professor at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and the School of Life Sciences.

Dunckley teamed up with other universities including UCSD, Texas A&M and Harvard University and research institutes such as TGen to study the epigenetic changes in Parkinson's patients over time, specifically alterations in DNA methylation patterns over the course of the disease. If researchers were to obtain a better understanding of the DNA methylome in Parkinson's patients, they could potentially diagnose the disease earlier.

Currently, the disease is identified through clinical symptoms related to physical movement.

“When physicians treat PD patients, it is usually too late to change the trajectory of the disease. I am interested in early diagnostics to try to identify people prone to the disease before they get it,” Dunckley added. “Using this approach, you could put patients at risk for PD on certain therapies before symptoms arise.”

Parkinson's is governed both by genetic factors and environmental factors, making epigenetics an apt area of study.

“It’s about 60% environmental — it’s much less genetic than many other neurodegenerative diseases,” Dunckley said. “It’s made of up of environmental interactions with the genome. One of the major ways that the environment acts with the genome is through epigenetics.”

DNA methylation, one form of epigenetic alteration of genes, is a process during which methyl groups are added to DNA. These methyl groups can change the activity of the DNA without changing its sequence. However, in the context of Parkinson's disease, it can be difficult to conclude that changes in DNA methylation are solely correlated to disease progression.

“It is hard to link them without confounding variables in that there are a lot of environmental factors,” Dunckley said. “It’s difficult to say whether epigenetic changes are based on disease, environmental factors or a combination of disease and environmental factors.”

In this study, the largest longitudinal epigenetic study in Parkinson's disease to date, 189 patients’ methylomes were studied and compared to that of 191 control subjects. Two years later, their methylomes were compared once again.

The project identified distinct methylation patterns in Parkinson's patients relative to control patients and identified specific sites at which methylation changed longitudinally. The study also found differences in methylation patterns for those subjected to anti-Parkinson’s drugs (dopamine replacement drugs) versus those who received no treatment. The researchers found that DNA methylation changed more for those patients without treatment, further exacerbating the link between epigenetics and Parkinson's progression.

“The main findings are that one, the epigenome does change as the disease progresses. The second finding is that the PD medications themselves alter the epigenome,” Dunckley added. 

If researchers can identify changes in methylation that are characteristic of Parkinson's disease, they can diagnose earlier, allowing for more effective therapeutic strategies before there is irreversible damage. The methylation signatures are therefore promising candidates for biomarkers useful in early detection. 

To expand the scope of the project, Dunckley and his counterparts are repeating the same study but with a longer range of time and with a new subset of patients. 

“The next study we are doing is a replication and extension of this one to validate the findings and extend the observation period to five years,” Dunckley said. “We are also including patients that are very early in PD progression, patients who have symptoms that are highly predictive of future PD. The ultimate goal is to identify changes in these earliest stages of disease that can be predictive of future PD onset.”

Further exploration of epigenetic changes like DNA methylation promise to expand the understanding of this enigmatic disease and hopefully point the way to effective treatments.

Gabrielle Hirneise

Assistant science writer , Biodesign Institute