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Dissertation Driven

April 4, 2013


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Hewitt holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in biomedical engineering. Of her M.D./Ph.D. she says, “I felt I could make a better contribution from the physiological side of things.”

Angela Hewitt is a doctoral fellow helping to lay the groundwork for some of the U’s leading brain research.
Just try and keep up.

Angela Hewitt can be a hard person to catch. She tries to reserve mornings for writing, to allow time after a microwaved lunch for research, meetings, and her students. Around 3:30 or 4, she’s off to pick up her daughter, a kindergartener. Hewitt and her spouse also have a 20-month-old daughter, and a newborn son. When she talks on the phone, you can tell she’s on the move.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a woman who had patents before kids, and who already has two years of medical school and most of her Ph.D. behind her, is one of the doctoral fellows whose research will be featured next week in the University of Minnesota’s Doctoral Research Showcase at Coffman Union. Hewitt and other participants are recipients of the University’s prestigious Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (DDF) and Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship (IDF).

The Doctoral Research Showcase takes place April 9, from noon to 2 p.m., in the Great Hall of Coffman Memorial Union.

The event is free and open to the public. For more information or to request disability accommodations, contact Alison Skoberg at skobe001@umn.edu.

Help with the home stretch

Both fellowships are based on academic merit and include a stipend of $22,500 for the academic year, as well as tuition credits and subsidized health insurance. University-wide committees review the nominations.

University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler knows a thing or two about that final dissertation stage. “Doctoral research fellowships provide the University’s most accomplished Ph.D. candidates an opportunity to devote full-time effort to research and writing,” he said. “That’s really important because, from my own experience, getting that last bit done is really hard.

“I know first hand because more than thirty years ago I was a chemical engineering graduate student here, and our Doctoral Fellowship Program helped me complete my dissertation. For that, to this day, I am very grateful.”

Wide-ranging research

Fellows will share research in a wide range of disciplines—some related to areas of the U’s MnDRIVE initiative, and others that have implications for the state and even the world.

Shannon Golden, IDF, Sociology, studied the way daily social interactions between survivors of two decades of war in northern Uganda contributed to social stability—or tension and conflict—during resettlement and reconstruction. She argues that understanding those interactions and local social context is essential to ensuring stability and preventing future cycles of violence in post-war communities.
Adam Kokotovich, DDF, Natural Resources Science and Management, will share his work on the governance of plant genetic engineering and risk, with a focus on wild rice and genetic engineering issues in Minnesota.
Marcus Beck, IDF, Conservation Biology, has been conducting research that will facilitate the indexing and monitoring the health of aquatic plants as a means to evaluate Minnesota lake health.
Nicole Skinner, DDF, Microbiology, Immunology, and Cancer Biology, will share her work on minicircle DNA vaccines, and their potential superiority over full-length DNA vaccines and more traditional protein or viral-based vaccines.

Delving into motor control

Hewitt’s research focuses on motor control of arm movements to examine whether the cerebellar cortex is the site of a “forward internal model”—a neural mechanism that helps the brain predict movement and adapt to interference from the environment.

“When we move, we make a lot of errors,” says Hewitt. “My research is looking at how we correct those errors.” She's been investigating which aspects of movement are signaled by neurons in the cerebellar cortex, and how the signals might change and adapt when our movements are predictably perturbed.

“Think about the act of reaching for a cup. Our brains are constantly making predictions and sending signals—about things like speed, resistance, and grip force—and making corrections.”

Knowing where these predictions and corrections occur within the brain, says Hewitt, has implications not only for neuromodulation—the therapeutic alteration of activity either through stimulation or medication—but also for robotics and things like smart prosthetics…and even learning.

“If we can understand how our brains produce smooth movement, engineers can make better products for people who need prosthetics,” says Hewitt.

Hewitt says her fellowship has been significant in that it’s given her the opportunity to pursue her own research. She points out that grad students are sometimes limited to the grant-funded research their advisers and mentors are pursuing. Her DDF has given her the chance to focus on an area of special interest. “It’s nice to have a project you’re passionate about…and it’s been significant for me to have my own research, and the experience of being in charge of the mechanics of the whole experiment.”

Once she defends her dissertation and completes revisions, Hewitt will return to the U’s Medical School for her third and fourth years. Then she’ll move on to residency and research.

“I’m hoping my clinical experience might inform where my research takes me.” One of the significant observations she’s culled from her research is how essential the forward internal model is for learning—the brain is in a continual state of adaptation, constantly relearning, she explains. Because of this, she’s interested in continuing to explore the fundamentals of motor control and the possibilities they hold for designing better therapies for the aftermath of traumatic brain injuries and stroke.

While it’s hard for her to predict where her research might eventually take her, Hewitt is clear that she wants to be involved in translational research as an M.D. “I’d like to be a physician-scientist at a major research university like the U.”

Related Links

2013 Doctoral Research Showcase

“Future Forward,” Minnesota Magazine, Winter 2013

MnDRIVE

Read more on the U's work to treat brain conditions

Learn more about the U's budget request