Originally from Honduras, and currently working on a PhD in Spain, Karla Reyes comes to UC Santa Cruz focused on advancing technology used for the rehabilitation of the blind.
Home Institution: Center for Biomedical Technology at the Technical University of Madrid
Field: Biomedical engineering, assistive technology
UCSC Faculty Sponsor: Professor Roberto Manduchi
In our conversation, we learn about Karla’s research and interest in UCSC.
GE: Please share a brief overview of the field of research you are focused on.
Karla: I am a biomedical engineer, specifically in the field of assistive technology for visually impaired people. For me, Biomedical engineering is sort of the link between the medical world and engineering. While a researcher will generally understand a bit of both, they may choose a clinical field or an engineering field to pursue.
In biomedical engineering, everything developed is related to healthcare. This may include medical devices, medical sensors, and medical device manufacturing. Currently, I am focused on the development of technology for assisting people with visual impairments during the rehabilitation of orientation and mobility.
GE: How did you become interested in biomedical engineering?
Karla: I come from a medical field family, so I am familiar with clinical and hospital environments. When I was a young girl, I watched my dad’s surgery videos as if they were movies and I spent a lot of time in the waiting room of my mom’s clinic. My passion lies in technology and engineering in general, so I think bringing the two together was just a perfect fit.
My dad always talked about biomedical engineers and what they do, and I think had an impact on me from a young age. In my country, most biomedical engineers work in the service and maintenance of medical equipment. I wanted to work in development.
Taking a scientific path and pursuing research through my PhD, I moved to Madrid to join a research group focused on assistive technology. Once there, everything came together for me to work on my thesis.
GE: How did you learn about UCSC and why is UCSC a good fit for your field?
Karla: I learned about UCSC from professor Roberto Manduchi I am working with at UCSC, I read his work since I started my doctorate. I discovered he is a professor of computer science and engineering at UCSC and is a leading researcher for assistive technology for the visually impaired. As soon as I had the opportunity to come to the U.S., I chose to work with him.
GE: Can you provide us with an overview of kind of the work you do, and your future aspirations?
Karla: Professor Manduchi’s lab has a lot of experience working in computer vision for assistive technology, as well as sensor signal processing from inertial sensors using machine and deep learning. I’m currently working on estimating parameters such as walking tasks, step length, and step count from inertial sensors using experimental data from visually impaired people. I’m applying the methods that Roberto’s lab has developed in order to calculate or estimate these parameters.
My future goals and aspirations, in general, consist of finishing my doctoral thesis and continuing a career as a biomedical researcher. Additionally, taking the knowledge and methods I gain through this collaboration with UCSC, to our work at the Center for Biomedical Technology. I think it will be will result in a very good collaboration, and I also hope that our research will be a topic of interest for stakeholders in the rehabilitation of blind people.
Most of the state-of-the-art technology for visually impaired people is focused on localization and assistance for mobility, not on rehabilitation. We’re proposing a new idea, using technology for rehabilitation too and, I truly believe it should get attention.
GE: Speaking of rehabilitation, what would rehabilitation look like for someone who cannot see?
Karla: It is important to understand what we mean by orientation and mobility rehabilitation. We do not mean vision rehabilitation, but rather a rehabilitation of one’s autonomy and ability to live and displace independently.
When someone is visually impaired, they must rehabilitate to do their daily tasks, as displacing to their jobs or living at their houses, by themselves and with autonomy. They have to learn to maximize the use of the other senses instead of their sight.
Our research is focused on orientation and mobility, which means moving safely and efficiently to another place. You have to learn to use the cane to identify objects on the way, to learn to walk correctly without compromising your posture, to place your hand in certain ways, and to do it effectively. It is a type of training to gain mobility safely so people don’t lose their autonomy.
In order to support this training, we try to measure parameters that are traditionally obtained visually by an in-person instructor, which we can do with high accuracy. In-person training can be a barrier to rehabilitation in many parts of the world, due to availability or cost. So, the idea is to support the physical training by the use of an instrument that will help you calculate your own rehabilitation progress as a proposal for a tele-rehabilitation tool.
GE: You mentioned you are originally from Honduras, then moved to Madrid, and now you’re here in the U.S. How has collaborating with multiple international teams influenced your work or enhanced your perspective?
Karla: Yes, I did my undergraduate degree in Honduras, my master’s in Brazil, and now I am working on my PhD in Spain. Recently, I also spent three months in a laboratory in Germany. International collaboration has allowed me to grow in every way, as a researcher to have discussions on a scientific level with people from different backgrounds, and with different points of view.
The experience has helped me to shape and refine my own point of view and knowledge because, coming from Honduras, I always keep the limitations of the country in mind, which includes the cost and availability of technology. Working with Germans or Americans, they might not have the same perspective.
One interesting perspective I have seen in assistive technology, in Madrid for instance, the city is very supportive of the visually impaired. You often see blind people living autonomously, going to university, or going to work. That is something I didn’t see in Honduras.
While in Germany, I was able to meet a Phd student who is blind, and an assistant professor at the university. I came to watch how he teaches using the available assistive technology and really began to understand that everything can be achieved if you do it correctly.
My international experiences and collaborations have strengthened me professionally, mentally, and emotionally, as well as enhanced my ability to be adaptable and receptive to so many environments, people, and cultures. Above all, to put aside the limitations I had on my mind.
Add to that, at UCSC the beauty of Santa Cruz and the campus. I am surrounded by nature, which has made the last year of my PhD much less stressful than it could have been. Being here has really been good for my mental health and balance. It’s been so good to live here.
GE: Where can we learn more about the work that you and the labs you are working with are doing?
Karla: The Computer Vision Lab website is a great place to start. This is the site for Roberto Manduchi’s lab where you can find news, awards, and other lab information. You can learn more about my lab in Madrid on the Bioinstrumentation And Nanomedicine Laboratory website.