From purpose to impact
What's the purpose? And what actions can I take to have an impact?
These are two questions Asimina Kiourti, an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University, weighs heavily.
The answers start a process that’s not only directed her research at Ohio State’s ElectroScience Laboratory (ESL) but also her journey as an engineer.
“Sometimes engineers are criticized for looking to solve problems that don’t actually exist,” Kiourti said. “But through collaboration and conversation, we can determine what’s needed. I receive requests a lot from the College of Medicine or College of Veterinary Medicine about problems they’re having. They’re looking to us to think of a potential solution.”
Kiourti’s team at ESL carries out interdisciplinary research at the intersection of bio-electromagnetics, wearable and implantable antennas, sensors for body area applications, and flexible textile-based electronics.
A native of Greece, she’s known as a pioneer in the field of electromagnetics. Kiourti has garnered international recognition for her work, including the 2018 International Union of Radio Science (URSI) Young Scientist Award. Her publication record has amassed more than 10 patents, 50 journal papers, and 80 conference papers.
Kiourti’s journey, however, has just begun.
She joined Ohio State’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as an assistant professor in fall 2016. From 2013 to 2016, she served as a postdoctoral researcher and then a senior research associate at ESL. Before that, she received her Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the National Technical University of Athens, Greece in 2013 and her Master of Science degree from University College London, England in 2009.
“I was a top student my entire life,” Kiourti shared. “Everyone was like, you should go to the United States. To me, it seemed so far. At the time, I had never been outside of Europe. It’s like they were telling me to go to the moon.”
But when the chance came up for Kiourti to travel to the United States for a conference when she was pursuing her Ph.D., she couldn’t let the opportunity pass by.
It was there she met Dr. John L. Volakis, who served as the director of ESL from 2003-2016.
“ESL has everything I was looking for,” Kiourti said. “Here, you can do everything in one building. Back in Greece, when I was designing something, I had to fly to Portugal to build it. At ESL, we have not only the equipment but also the expertise.
“When I came to Ohio State, they had just won a project on neurosensing,” Kiourti continued. “The timing worked out well with winning the project, my arrival, and the fact that it was exactly what I wanted to do.”
But knowing what she wanted to do wasn’t always clear to Kiourti. She didn’t strive to become an engineer based on personal aspirations. Her initial purpose was more practical.
“Unemployment in Greece is a big issue,” Kiourti shared. “If you’re an engineer, it makes it easier to find a job.
“Engineering isn’t necessarily something I sought out based on interest. But what I liked about electrical and computer engineering, in particular, was that it was very broad. During my studies, I was confident I could find an area of interest.”
As someone who appreciates the impact her work can have, bio-electromagnetics fit that context.
“When I finished my bachelor’s degree, there was a professor in the United Kingdom who was working through bio-applications,” Kiourti said. “I didn’t want to build things for the sake of building things. I wanted to see the result, the impact, and actually help someone."
Kiourti started working in bio-electromagnetics in its infancy.
“No one was working on it at the time,” Kiourti shared. “Now, I go to conferences and find more people are working in the field. I think getting involved so early helped put me ahead.”
To her, getting ahead translates to having an impact.
One of her current projects includes developing a new class of wearable coils that can seamlessly monitor joint kinematics in a person's natural environment. The project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation's Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS).
“It’s a technology that helps monitor the way we move,” Kiourti said. “It all started with monitoring sports injuries. My collaborators at Ohio State Sports Medicine pointed me in that direction.”
Kiourti’s collaborators shared an example of an athlete recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery; they want to monitor the movement of that patient in the gap between doctors' visits.
“The idea for smart clothes that monitor joint kinematics bridges that gap,” Kiourti explained. “We also see the technology being beneficial for other areas of rehabilitation, including patients recovering from a stroke.”
The cross-campus collaborations that Kiourti leverages don’t always include medical professionals coming to her with a problem. Sometimes she’s approaching them with an idea, eager to see if her hunch could have an impact.
“I have cases where I just know I need to talk to someone with that area of expertise,” Kiourti said. “I’ll start asking around to narrow down contacts who work directly in that field.
“A lot of my research is bridging two worlds — typically that’s medicine and engineering,” she continued. “We’re designing new sensors from scratch, which can take years for us to develop fully. On the other side, clinicians need a sensor right now to start collecting data. You have to find the sweet spot between the two.”
It’s a practice she navigates well, and she hopes to pass along to her students.
“The students at the end of the day make me the most proud."
Kiourti not only works with students in the classroom but also in her lab at ESL. She has students assigned to each project. As a member of Kiourti's team, they have individual responsibilities and see research initiatives through on a day-to-day basis.
One such student is Katrina Guido, a Ph.D. student who won the 2019 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship Award.
“Working on Asimina’s team is better than anything I would have expected from a graduate program,” Guido shared. “She treats you like an equal, providing just enough guidance so as not to feel completely lost while still allowing us to learn from the challenges we encounter.
“Her ability to break down complex topics in an intuitive manner and create a narrative to connect these topics – whether for a ten-minute presentation, a semester-long course, a journal paper, a grant proposal, etc. – allows all audiences to really grasp the information she is conveying in a way that I haven’t seen many professors able to achieve,” Guido continued.
That ability to connect the dots, from purpose to impact, is something Guido hopes to mirror in her work.
“Taking her courses, writing papers with her, having her as an adviser and role model has provided an opportunity for me to really examine my own ability to share my research,” Guido said. “It has pushed me to understand every single facet of my research.”
When asked of her advice for budding engineers looking to mirror her success, Kiourti encourages exploration.
“There are a lot of opportunities in engineering,” Kiourti said. “I often see students want to explore research opportunities, but they don’t know where to start. I tell them to send an email. Find someone doing research in an area you’re interested in and send an email. Be persistent until you find something you like.”
by Ashley Albertson, ERA Communications Specialist, email@example.com