By Christina Campbell, on 29 June 2015
In this monthly feature, the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME) interviews our researchers, academics, students, clinicians, affiliates and partners to find out a little more about who they are and what they do.
This month we interviewed Dr Tom Carlson, a Lecturer at the Aspire CREATe – Centre for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology, UCL. We asked him 10 questions around his research, career and personal life. Here are his answers….
Aspire Lecturer – just to clarify, rather than “aspiring” to be a lecturer, this lectureship is part-funded by the Aspire Spinal Injury Charity. Our lab is located close to the Aspire headquarters on UCL’s campus at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore.
2) How long have you worked as an Aspire Lecturer?
3) What keywords would you pick to describe your work?
Stimulating, rewarding, beneficial, challenging and fun!
4) What brought you to the world of science/engineering/medical technologies/medicine?
When I was younger I loved building things with Lego. I also really enjoyed taking things apart and figuring out how to put them back together (or not) – fortunately my parents were very patient!
It was my Grandad who taught me all life’s essentials in his wood workshop – how to use a multitude of hand tools, how to solder, how to make a dovetail joint… I also have to thank Graham Bennett, my high school electronics teacher, who staved off retirement and came back part-time to teach our 4-pupil-strong A-level electronics classes. He was definitely a catalyst of my passion for all things electric, and he encouraged me to pursue Electronic Engineering at university.
It wasn’t until my PhD with Yiannis Demiris at Imperial College London that I began to gravitate towards the medical sector. Later I received a lot more exposure to the clinical world during my post doc years with José del R. Millán at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.
5) What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love playing with robots and it’s even better when we’re developing medical technologies to actually help people get on with their lives. I also enjoy meeting all the diverse people along the way, from scientists, to clinicians, to patients and the general public – we all share the same enthusiasm for the projects we’re working on and I have friends all over the world.
I guess one of the main challenges is managing the interests and expectations of all the stakeholders – the patients and their families, the charities, our academic, industrial and clinical collaborators…
And certainly the key technical challenge is how to deal with the variability in our human users – everyone is different; everyone has their own capabilities, needs and desires – how can we create generic technologies that are cost-effective, reliable and useful, but at the same time meet the very specific (and ever-changing) demands of each individual user?
7) How will you deal with these challenges?
By involving the stakeholders at all stages throughout the research and being open and honest about where we are and where we’re going, we hope we can manage their expectations. For example, on some of our recent grant applications, in addition to consulting with our industrial partners, we are also involving potential end-users as co-applicants, who can then take a very active and important advisory role in the project.
As for the technical challenge of end-user variability, we are working on creating adaptive and learning algorithms, such that as your capabilities change, so does the level of assistance or support provided by our “shared control” systems. We’re trying to do this at multiple timescales, to enable us to cope with short-term changes, like fatigue, as well as longer-term behavioural changes.
8) What has been your career highlight?
It’s still early days, but I would have to say that my career highlight so far was when we got the first patient driving our brain-controlled wheelchair around a rehabilitation centre in Switzerland – that was only a demonstration and there’s still a lot of work to do, but it was a pretty exciting moment!
9) Who has been your greatest mentor and why?
When I first became a postdoctoral researcher there were two senior scientists in the lab, Dr Robert Leeb and Dr Ricardo Chavarriaga. They have been an immense help in mentoring me during the transition from being a PhD student to an independent researcher and also in the transition from a very much electronic engineering world into the biomedical engineering world.
In Switzerland I spent my time hiking in the alps and skating on frozen lakes. Now I’m back in the UK, the hikes are a little less steep! I enjoy playing the piano, and more recently I’ve spent a lot of time decorating my new house.
Tom Carlson obtained his MEng (2006) and PhD (2010) from the Electrical Engineering Department at Imperial College London. Before moving to UCL, he undertook three-and-a-half years of postdoctoral research on brain-computer interfaces at EPFL, Switzerland.
Tom is currently working on the user-centred design of assistive robotic technologies for people with spinal cord injuries. In particular, he is developing shared control techniques for operating devices such as wheelchairs, with novel interfaces, eg brain-machine interfaces and eye-trackers. These devices predict the user’s intention in the context of an environment, translating from wheelchairs to exoskeletons.
He is also an active member of the IEEE SMC Technical Committee on Shared Control, which he co-founded and has chaired for the last three years.