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Broadening borders and minds

Biomedical engineering students from Mexico conduct research to boost brain science at ASU

Four people stand around a conference table.

Biomedical engineering students Sara María Chávez (left), Pedro Garza Arenas (center right) and David Alejandro Cantuña Patiño (right) from Mexico’s Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey are conducting NSF-supported human brain research at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering under Fulton Schools Professor Marco Santello (center left) for senior-year internships. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

December 11, 2023

Globalization has reduced barriers across information channels and languages. Education, research and career development are no exception. As many students plan for their lives and careers while in college, some explore their ambitions by studying abroad. 

Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, also known as Tec de Monterrey, encourages its students to break the mold of the traditional academic journey with its degree requirement to complete hands-on work through research internships. However, the details are largely open-ended, allowing students to personalize their experiences. 

Through connections with the Building Reliable Advances and Innovations in Neurotechnology, or BRAIN, Center — a National Science Foundation-supported collaborative initiative dedicated to developing effective neurotechnologies and expanding understandings of the human brain — as well as Tec de Monterrey and ASU’s history of collaboration, three Tec de Monterrey biomedical engineering students chose to complete their research through recent internships at ASU. 

Seniors Pedro Garza Arenas, Sara María Chávez and David Alejandro Cantuña Patiño worked under Marco Santello, a BRAIN Center collaborator and professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. 

Chávez says that Tec de Monterrey and ASU are similar in their strong focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Studying the effects of stress

During their semester at ASU, Arenas, Chávez and Cantuña created software for a wearable device to collect data from the body and estimate the amount of stress a user is experiencing at any given time. This research helps record and quantify how the brain transmits signals throughout the body when under stress. 

“We’re trying to measure how variables like how much sleep you get, temperature and noise affect the body,” Arenas says. “We are trying to measure that and quantify the resulting stress. The goal is for anyone, from first responders to astronauts, to have wearable devices to tell them when they should take some time off.”

Each student focused on a different stress factor and did a deep dive into existing literature to establish a knowledge base in the area to determine how they could innovate. They then developed extensive software code to integrate information collected from the device and yield a numerical value to quantify stress.

Santello aimed to help the students develop their research approaches and expand their critical thinking skills. 

Cantuña, who studied the impact of cognitive load, or how much mental effort one must expend to complete a task, says Santello encouraged students to dig deeper in reading background information.

“Dr. Santello always encouraged more reading. He told us that in most research papers, you can find something special to use in your own research,” he says.

Arenas concurs, having experienced similar encouragement from Santello.

“Dr. Santello’s favorite phrase is ‘doing due diligence,’” Arenas adds.

The students completed their research in the Neural Control of Movement Lab. Chávez took Santello’s mentorship to heart while enjoying the resources ASU offers.

“I am impressed by the machines and facilities on campus,” she says. “The professors have been so kind and respectful of my time.”  

Aurel Coza, director of the adidas-ASU Center for Engagement Science and collaborator on the wearable device project, appreciates the valuable strides the students have made.

“The growth in their understanding of practical problem-solving went basically from zero to 60 within the span of three to four months,” Coza says. “They’ve shown tremendous growth in defining and solving a problem, and disseminating results.”

An internationally informed perspective

Santello’s own education incorporated a global perspective, having studied in Italy, England and the U.S. 

“I learned to adapt to different cultures and work styles,” Santello says. “You learn new things, both in and out of the lab. I am very appreciative of students who are willing to go to different countries to get educational experience.”

Like Santello, Chávez was inspired to study abroad at ASU to gain a cross-cultural view of life and education. 

“Having international experience is helpful for my professional and personal development,” Chávez says.

Having grown up in Ecuador before attending college in Mexico, Cantuña is accustomed to contrasting educational systems, cultural nuances and diverse approaches.

“Engaging in an academic exchange program in the United States holds immense significance, not only for its educational advantages but also for the broader cultural understanding it fosters,” Cantuña says. “By immersing yourself in the academic landscape of the U.S., you gain access to world-class educational resources, diverse perspectives and innovative methodologies that greatly enrich your academic journey.”

Arenas says studying abroad isn’t common in Mexico, so he and the other students made the most of their opportunity to experience U.S. culture.

They made memories outside the lab as well by celebrating Halloween, attending college football games and visiting the Grand Canyon. 

“It was important to me to see all the beauty the U.S. has to offer,” Cantuña says.

Preparing for the future

The students found the opportunity to work on an NSF project rewarding and say they are excited to have their research published, which will bolster their credentials as they plan for their future careers. Designed to give the students insight into life as a researcher, the program provides them perspective on their academic and career options.  

“I want to see how different enterprises work and make new products that advance the field before I start a graduate degree program,” Cantuña says. “At this moment, I want to learn as much as I can.”

Chávez encourages all students interested in research to get involved in research as soon as possible.

“This experience showed me more about what biomedical engineering research involves and the importance of conducting research as part of the work to earn a master’s degree,” she says. “It’s all about looking for solutions in existing articles so you can find ways to innovate.”

Arenas also found that examining knowledge gleaned from current research can provide valuable instruction to cultivate new engineering ideas. 

“After months and months of reading research papers and coding, we now have a program and formulas,” Arenas says. “It’s mind-blowing that there’s a tangible result for all the work we’ve done.”

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