The Science of Helping

From self-powered movement monitors to pain management, UNT researcher Ifana Mahbub is exploring the biomedical applications of semiconductor devices.
Written by: 
Erin Cristales

fana Mahbub first became intrigued by electrical engineering after developing an intercom system for a high school science fair in her native Bangladesh. That drew her to dabble in board design, which led her to pursue electrical engineering as a university student, which ultimately resulted in her developing an expertise in semiconductor devices.

Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Ifana Mahbub (center).
Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Ifana Mahbub (center) works with Ph.D. students Pashupati Adhikari (left) and Nishat Tasneem on her electro-wetting project.

“All the electronics we see around us are based on those devices,” says Mahbub, an assistant professor in UNT’s College of Engineering.

Her research, it seems, has taken a similarly circuitous path, focusing on how one thing leads to another — more specifically, how a transducer can lead to efficient energy harvesting, which can lead to self-powered wearable devices, which can in turn lead to better monitoring of patient movement and health, particularly in the elderly.

She co-wrote the self-charging wireless wearable devices proposal with former UNT mechanical and energy engineering assistant professor Russell Reid, who is working to develop the transducer, the system that vibrates to harvest energy. Mahbub’s role is in the development of miniature-scale circuits and systems that will further harness the energy and make the device act as a sensor. To do this, Mahbub is using a process called reverse electro-wetting, which takes advantage of motion — such as a person moving their arms or legs — by compressing and decompressing a liquid between two plates.

Mahbub and Reid are now at the transducer development and modeling stage of the project, and are hopeful their work will ultimately help track the mobility of older populations.

“We want to be able to detect their movements — if they’re not moving for a long period of time, we need to know so we can check on them,” Mahbub says. “The goal is that the sensor will record motion activity and transmit the information wirelessly to a remote receiver.”

But that’s not the only research with biomedical implications that Mahbub is exploring. As part of a $500,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program grant, she is developing a wireless recording, stimulation and power system that will allow medical researchers to study and possibly treat brain diseases such as chronic neuropathic pain and post-stroke paralysis. Her goal is to develop a microscopic, wireless system that will record neural signals from electrodes inside the brain and provide stimulation in the form of visible light from tiny LEDs as a way to potentially reduce a patient’s pain.

“Opiods are a problem, and people are trying to find alternative ways to solve chronic pain,” says Mahbub, who notes that the project is a collaboration with other chronic pain mitigation researchers, including one from Texas A&M. “We have to work together to solve the problems that exist.”

Both projects include learning experiences for pre-college, undergraduate and graduate students. The electro-wetting research provides sponsorship for an undergraduate senior design team, as well as energy-harvesting and circuit-design experiences for UNT’s College of Engineering summer camp for K-12 youth. As part of her neuropathic pain research, Mahbub is developing an interactive circuit design module that will teach fundamental concepts of engineering and neuroscience to students in grades 6-12, and she will mentor students at Northwest ISD’s STEM Academy, as well as underrepresented students in STEM at UNT’s Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science.

“I’ve always loved teaching and mentoring students,” she says.

Additionally, Mahbub is collaborating with Powe award winner and assistant professor April Becker, in UNT’s College of Health and Public Service, to explore the genetic modification and replacement of damaged neurons to help stroke victims recover basic motor skills.

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