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Sri Sarma Honored with PECASE Award

July 11, 2012

Sridevi V. Sarma, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has received the highest U.S. honor bestowed upon early-stage researchers for her work to use electrical engineering and computer science tools to develop treatments for debilitating brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

Sarma was selected to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award by the National Science Foundation for her “for a transformative approach to design and control of electrical deep brain stimulation for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.” The citation also noted her educational and outreach activities to mentor women in science and engineering. Sarma is among 96 researchers selected this year. She will be honored in late July at a White House ceremony.

“I am thrilled that the National Science Foundation has recognized my work,” says Sarma, “especially because it is geared toward clinical impact. Researchers such as myself, trained in control theory, look at complex systems. I apply this to the study of the brain. I want to use control theory tools to better understand the brain’s neural circuitry in the hopes of finding new treatments for disorders and disease.

Nicholas P. Jones, the school’s Benjamin T. Rome Dean, applauded NSF’s decision as “wonderful recognition for the innovative and inspiring work Sri is doing at Johns Hopkins’ Institute for Computational Medicine and of the potential her research holds to improve treatment of neurological disorders.” Johns Hopkins Engineering Associate Professor Noah J. Cowan received the PECASE last year.

In addition to working on deep brain stimulation, Sarma is collaborating with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine epilepsy experts to improve anti-seizure technology with the goal of developing new early warning systems for seizures that could lead to reducing unneeded treatments.

Trained as an engineer, Sarma’s interest in brain disorders developed late in her education. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in electrical engineering, then master’s and doctoral degrees at MIT, both in electrical engineering and computer science.

During her doctoral studies, however, she pursued a minor in neuroscience. For a class, she conducted a case study of her aunt, who had developed Parkinson’s disease at age 29 and had trouble managing it with medication. The experience had a profound impact on her.  “I really wanted to understand the neurobiological circuitry of this disease,” she says. Sarma began to focus on deep brain stimulation—the use of electric pulses to treat brain disorders such as Parkinson’s and epilepsy.

She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department and became a neuroscience research associate with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She joined BME, shared by the engineering and medical schools, in 2009. She is a core faculty member in the Institute for Computational Medicine, and in 2011, she received an NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award.

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