Q&A: Valencia Joyner Koomson on new possibilities in microelectronic health systems

Q&A: Valencia Joyner Koomson on new possibilities in microelectronic health systems

9 December 2020

Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

MIT News

Jane Halpern | Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
December 9, 2020

Valencia Joyner Koomson ’98, MNG ’99 is a Visiting MLK Scholar in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Based at Tufts University, where she is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Koomson has focused her research on microelectronic systems for cell analysis and biomedical applications. Here, she shares more about her work and the future of her field.

Q: What big question does your research seek to answer? Put another way, what set of problems are you most interested in solving?

A: I’m interested in how we can make electrical systems into useful forms that improve people’s lives, from portable sensors and wearable devices that allow people to monitor their health outside the clinical setting, to miniaturized systems that measure communications between growing cells.

Q: Why is this problem particularly important to solve — what kinds of real-world applications does this work have?

A: One application area I started in was in neonatal care: How do we monitor the health of very fragile lives, such as preterm infants? Over a million babies per year are born in the United States preterm (which is defined as below 38 weeks). Globally, there are nearly 15 million children born too early. Being born prematurely can introduce a number of health considerations, specifically neurological damage due to low levels of oxygen reaching brain tissues. Many times, neurological damage can only be detected by MRI, and when you’re dealing with a tiny one-pound baby, having them undergo an MRI scan is usually not possible. So we are developing an imaging tool that works much the same way as a pulse oximeter, using near-infrared spectroscopy. In short, you would shine a light at different wavelengths on the baby’s forehead and study the propagation of light through tissue to monitor brain oxygenation — a crucial vital sign. This is a more advanced implementation of the same near-infrared spectroscopy techniques which are already being used in the Fitbit, in Apple watches, and in the health care setting to measure arterial oxygen saturation.