The Catholic University of America

March 9, 2015

Engineering Professor Receives $500,000 Grant

  Engineering Assistant Professor Sang Wook Lee

Sang Wook Lee, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, was recently named a recipient of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development award. Lee’s award includes five years of financial support for his research, totaling $500,445 and beginning March 1.

The career award is the foundation’s most prestigious award for junior faculty, offering financial support for those “who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations,” according to the NSF website. Up to 20 recipients are selected each year by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Lee’s research looks at the neuromechanics behind functional impairment in the arms and hands of people who have experienced strokes as well as the ways movement can be restored by retraining muscle activation patterns.

Lee has been teaching in biomedical engineering at Catholic University since 2010. In addition to teaching, he works with stroke survivors at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. His research will involve three steps. First, he wants to analyze abnormalities in the muscle activities for stroke victims to understand the mechanisms of their impairments using electromyography and the use of electrodes. Next, Lee plans to use what he’s learned to construct a model and eventually a robotic orthotic hand device in order to improve the function of the impaired hand.

“The goal is to improve the functionality of patients affected by stroke, focusing more on the hands and upper extremities,” Lee said. “A lot of studies have been done for lower extremities because that’s what more people focus on, but there’s a critical period in which you have to focus on rehabilitation after you have a stroke and it’s very time sensitive.

“People tend to focus more on regaining their gait ability, so they end up having their hand severely impaired. Many people can actually walk around, but they can’t really use their hands and arms.”

Lee was not always interested in biomedical engineering. As an undergraduate in Seoul, where he grew up, Lee was a mechanical design and production engineering major. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he worked in mechanical engineering. He studied hands, with a focus on ergonomics for product design.

“It was quite different actually from what I’m doing now,” Lee said. “I didn’t have any contact with patient populations or stroke victims. This is something I didn’t really understand.”

After graduating in 2006, Lee spent time at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for a post-doctorate. There, he found a mentor who was also working in hand biomechanics to develop better treatments for stroke patients and those with spinal cord injuries.

“Everything is geared toward rehabilitation there, so that’s what I started to do,” Lee said. “It was a really big shift.”

Working with patients has been an entirely new challenge, Lee said.

“There is so much variability across patients,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a struggle to compare the result. It is fascinating, but at the same time very challenging. Things are so different across people. Even though their lesion site (in the brain) is about the same and their lesion size is about the same, it might not explain half of the physical impairments they’re going to have.”

Lee said he enjoys working with patients and being able to help them.

“Not that pure engineering is not worthwhile, but you just get this direct reward from patients,” he said. “Sometimes you can see, after a period of training, they really get to use their hands much more as their hands get better.”

Engineering Dean Charlie Nguyen said the school is “very proud” of Lee for receiving the NSF award.

“This award is a strong manifestation of his research excellence because it is a very competitive award with very small rate of proposal success,” he said. “He will join three other engineering faculty members who are past recipients of this award and we are very honored to have this distinction.”

Lee said the NSF funds will provide him with a sense of stability during his research. Rather than worrying about funding, he is happy to know he can focus on his work.

According to the NSF website, the award is meant to “foster innovative developments in science and technology, increase awareness of careers in science and engineering, give recognition to the scientific missions of the participating agencies, enhance connections between fundamental research and national goals, and highlight the importance of science and technology for the nation’s future.”

“The development award gives you stability because its duration is five years so it is really good for the faculty to actually develop their ideas and implement them and see the results,” said Lee. “This gives you a stable environment to finish your projects.”




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