22:26 PM

BioE Grad Student Usamma Amjad Receives 2022 NDSEG Fellowship Award

The Department of Defense (DoD) has selected University of Pittsburgh Bioengineering PhD Candidate Usamma Amjad out of over 3100 applicants to receive the 2022 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship Award. The program supports graduate students in science and engineering whose work is important to the mission of the DoD. 

Amjad works in the Schwerdt Lab, which is led by Helen Schwerdt, assistant professor of bioengineering. Her lab focuses on building implantable tools for probing multiple forms of brain activity, built for use over the entirety of a human lifetime. These tools would allow researchers to understand brain function and improve the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders.

“It's quite motivating knowing an organization like the DoD feels that our work is important and needs to be supported. It’s also quite cool that our work will be able to be applied to support the DoD, and potentially impact soldiers’ lives,” said Amjad. “More than ever I am really proud of the work we are doing in Schwerdt lab, and I am very excited to know we are moving in the right direction!”

Amjad’s work in the Schwerdt Lab is focused on how dopamine dynamics change in the striatum when learning a skill, like riding a bike. Dopamine plays an important role in reinforcement learning, as well as in movement, but there’s very little literature showing how dopamine signals change over the course of learning a skill. 

“We are hoping that a better understanding of the whole process of skills learning may lend to better understanding how to treat or rehabilitate those with motor disorders, as well as to gain a better understanding of biologically feasible reinforcement learning and control,” Amjad said. “I am interested in understanding how the brain works and ultimately applying these findings to bio-inspired AI and improved neuropathological disease treatment.”

“Usamma’s work is to measure the contributions of striatal dopamine in skill learning, and advancing the tools to make these measurements,” said Schwerdt. “This combination of challenging research techniques and experimental studies are only possible with Usamma’s incredible ingenuity and his unrelenting drive and passion for research.”