Sumner Norman

Phd, CAltech, Engineering and Neuroscience

Category of Humanitarian Benefit: Health and Medical

Biography/Background of the Nominee: Sumner L Norman Postdoctoral Scholar - Neural Engineering
Passionate Engineer with experience leading interdisciplinary scientific research in neural interfaces, bio-signal processing, human-robot interaction, and computational neuroscience.
Ph.D., Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, UCI, June 2017 UC Irvine
Reinkensmeyer Biorobotics Laboratory
Activities and Societies: Commencement Speaker 2017, NSF fellow (NSF GRFP), ARCS scholar, Public Impact fellow, UCI
Cycling team 2013-2016
MS, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, UCI, December 2017
BS, Mechanical Engineering, University of Utah, May 2012
Major Awards and Fellowships
Public Impact Distinguished Fellow
Public Impact Fellowships highlight and support doctoral students whose current research has the potential for substantial impact in the public sphere.
ARCS Foundation Fellowship
ARCS® Foundation is a nationally recognized nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that boosts American leadership and aid
advancement in science and technology.
NSF Graduate Research Fellow- The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF- supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Project Name and Description: Brain-computer interface design for robotic movement therapy
Engineers have developed a technology, called a brain-computer interface, which enables people to power prosthetic devices with their mind. Sumner Norman takes that one step further. He uses the technology as part of the therapy that could restore function in paralyzed limbs. A Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering at UCI, Sumner uses brain- computer interface technology together with rehabilitation robotics to help those who have lost fine motion in their hands. The goal: awaken new neural pathways so people with stroke can regain movement.

Humanitarian Benefit: People tend to think of robots as tireless factory workers or as soulless automatons bent on destruction. For UCI’s Sumner Norman, they’re all about healing and rehabilitation. The fifth-year doctoral candidate in mechanical & aerospace engineering studies robotics-based therapies to help stroke victims. “I see an entirely different side to these technologies,” Norman says. “The main goal of my research is to demonstrate that machines and humans can work well together.”

Norman belongs to the biorobotics lab group headed by David Reinkensmeyer, UCI professor of biomedical engineering, mechanical & aerospace engineering, and anatomy & neurobiology. Members develop robotic and mechanical devices to help people recover from stroke- or accident-induced neurological damage. The grad student says he’s focused on aiding victims of stroke because it’s the leading cause of disability in the United States.

“There are so many of them, and as our population continues to get older, the numbers are only going to go up,” says Norman, who will be representing UCI and The Henry Samueli School of Engineering on Graduate Research Advocacy Day in Sacramento on April 19.

A stroke can damage parts of the brain that control speech and motor functions. For decades, patients have undergone physical rehabilitation to regain the ability to walk or use their arms. Norman’s work is dedicated to adding a technology component to movement therapy that’s tailored to each individual’s specific needs in order to achieve better outcomes.

“We work spatially, looking for different areas of the brain that show up during movements that are more successful,” he says. “We connect patients with a robot and let them move with it. We can see when they do better and when they do worse. We look for regions of the brain that are headed in the right direction but may be difficult to access.” Robotics developed in the UCI lab provide motion assistance and amplification to stroke victims. Another approach uses technologies to join patients with a computer so they can play immersive, motivating video games. To track therapeutic progress, the systems record and store data that can be shared with doctors and therapists.

“The idea isn’t to replace human healthcare professionals but to work with them,” Norman says. “The robots are a tool for recovery.”

His core project is the creation of a computer interface that patients wear on their heads. The electroencephalogram device searches for brain states that are correlated with movement success. According to the grad student, there are parts of the brain that are capable of recovery post-stroke. The objective is to use the device to train these regions to perform tasks previously handled by now-damaged areas.

This technique, Norman says, is totally safe, noninvasive and pain-free. “What we do is on the surface of the scalp,” he says. “It looks like a swimming cap with electrodes implanted in it. Patients are completely comfortable and at ease when using the device.”

He notes that while many robotics researchers are focused on producing artificial limbs for amputees, his work to help stroke victims presents some unique challenges. “Rather than a replacement, it’s a rehabilitation,” Norman says. “It’s actually a harder problem, because when someone’s lost an arm, you can build a new one to go in its place. Someone who’s had a stroke still has an arm and doesn’t want to wear something robotic all the time.

“Our goal is to have patients come in and use the robot in the clinic but then go home with their own arm, not ours.”