How do people’s wrists work?
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How do people’s wrists work?

Student interns study this and other scientific questions at Bar Ilan University

Bar-Ilan University summer lab partners Mark Kaplan of Woodcliff Lake and Chana Tropp of Teaneck work together.
Bar-Ilan University summer lab partners Mark Kaplan of Woodcliff Lake and Chana Tropp of Teaneck work together.

Do you and I move our wrists in the same way? Is there a standard way to move your wrists? Or are human wrist movements completely random? And does it matter one way or the other?

College students Mark Kaplan of Woodcliff Lake and Chana Tropp of Teaneck spent seven weeks of their summer vacation in an Israeli physics lab, working on a project that will help answer those questions

They were among 28 undergraduate science majors participating in the eighth annual Summer Science Research Internship program, a program sponsored jointly by Israel’s Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and Yeshiva University in New York.

This year’s interns hailed from Yeshiva University (Yeshiva College for men and Stern College for Women), Princeton University, UCLA, SUNY Binghamton, Barry University, Cooper Union, Queens College, and City College.

Mr. Kaplan, a 22-year-old YU physics major, and Ms. Tropp, a 21-year-old applied mathematics major at Queens, were placed in Dr. Ronny Bartsch’s physics lab.

“The goal of their project was to investigate statistical physics measures that characterize the properties of actigraphy — a non-invasive method of tracking human rest and activity cycles — fluctuations in order to monitor the rehabilitation of patients with traumatic brain injury,” Dr. Bartsch said.

Putting it in plainer English, Mr. Kaplan explained that if you track wrist movements of healthy people via an actimetry sensor worn like a watch for a week or 10 days, you’ll find that their wrist movements are surprisingly similar and correlated. And that’s true, moreover, whether the subjects are asleep or awake.

“What that means we don’t know,” Mr. Kaplan said. “There is something in our brain or autonomous nervous system that’s the same in every healthy human being, regardless of activity level. We’re trying to give this a medical application for patients with traumatic brain injury.”

Actigraphy, he said, could help therapists assess how far from normal such patients are at the start and then measure their progress in therapy by comparing their wrist movement patterns to those of healthy people.

“In Israel they’ve developed a way to help stroke patients by injecting Botox in the arm muscles to help control spasms,” Mr. Kaplan said. “In Dr. Bartsch’s lab we developed a potential method to measure different levels of treatment to see how random or not random the movements are. Today it’s mainly guesswork.”

Ms. Tropp said the BIU-YU summer program enabled her “to develop valuable programming skills and apply statistical physics methods to real-world problems. It was rewarding to be able to be in Israel and take advantage of living in this incredible country, while also having the opportunity to give back to the Israeli scientific community in my own small way.”

Devorah Saffern of Bergenfield, a chemical and biological engineering major at Princeton, worked in Prof. Yitzhak Mastai’s chemistry lab. Her project involved coaxing amino acids to form spherical crystal structures that have potential use in the design of pharmaceutical tablets, and trying to understand the mechanism by which these structures form.

“This research program has allowed me to explore my interest in chemistry research, apply my coursework to interesting and applicable experiments, and engage in the scientific community in Israel,” Ms. Saffern said.

Zvi Goldstein of Passaic, now going into his second year as a physics major at Yeshiva, worked with Israeli Ph.D. student Sagie Asraf in Prof. Zeev Zalevsky’s engineering lab. They experimented with a laser-based imaging system to sense the interaction of light and material waves within fibers. (In physics-speak, this is called Brillouin scattering.) Theoretically, fibers could be inserted into construction materials and the waves within them measured by the imaging system as a way of checking the structural integrity of a building or bridge.

Talia Schiff of Teaneck interned in Dr. David Anaki’s cognitive neuropsychology lab. The 20-year-old Stern College psychology/neuroscience major assisted in a study on facial recognition and memory from behavioral and electrophysiological standpoints. She was involved in designing the experiment, recruiting and testing participants, analyzing data, and planning future steps.

“By providing me the opportunity to gain profound experience in both the field and country that engage my passions, this program has humbled, empowered, and aided me in contemplating my own future in contributing to the world of brain science and the land and people of Israel,” Ms. Schiff said.

Stern College speech pathology and audiology majors Nurit Esral and Moreet Levine of Teaneck interned at Bar-Ilan’s Language Acquisition Lab in the university’s Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center.

Working with Prof. Sharon Armon-Lotem of the department of English literature and linguistics and Dr. Carmit Altman of the Churgin School of Education, their research focused on bilingual Israelis from English-speaking homes.

They examined clinical language assessments collected over the last 15 years in Israel to determine whether sociocultural differences among bilingual Israelis affect clinical language-evaluation test results.

They also were involved in a pilot project transcribing and coding stories told by bilingual children, some of them diagnosed with developmental language disorder, to test the effect on narrative skills and vocabulary of an intervention administered in the home language. And they coded narratives of bilingual adults with aphasia to look for patterns indicating whether mistakes in their speech are actual errors or attempts to compensate for language deficiencies.

Ms. Esral explained that their interest in this work was sparked by two interns from the previous summer who had done research in the same lab. “The internship has enabled me to learn about speech pathology and linguistics from a different angle through taking an active role in research,” she said. “I gained tools that I can use as a practicing clinician.”

Ms. Levine said she is interested in working with cancer patients with speech impairments. Her experience this summer at Bar-Ilan “has given me an appreciation for the research that is necessary for developing treatment methods that clinicians use on a regular basis.”

Prof. Arlene Wilson-Gordon of Bar-Ilan’s chemistry department directed this year’s program. Based on the students’ academic background and interests, she paired them with Bar-Ilan faculty members and research assignments. “We hope that some of them will return to Bar-Ilan for their graduate studies and make their homes in Israel,” she said.

The students were housed at Yeshiva University’s Jerusalem campus and were treated to half-day trips around the country, including to Israel Aerospace Industries, the Volcani Center Agricultural Research Organization, Sheba Medical Center, Teperberg Winery, and the Tel es-Safi/Gath archeological excavation site. They also heard lectures by BIU scholars and took part in nighttime activities, Torah learning, and Shabbat programming.

The Summer Science Research Internship Program is supported by Dr. Mordecai D. Katz, honorary chairman of the Bar-Ilan Board of Trustees, and the J. Samuel Harwit Z’L and Manya Harwit-Aviv Charitable Trust.

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