Q&A with CSE alumna and grad student Cara Herbers

Former Gopher hockey player wants to better diagnose and treat balance issues in Parkinson’s patients

November 10, 2021

After graduating in 2019 with a Bachelor’s of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, Cara Herbers decided she wasn’t ready to leave the Twin Cities campus. The College of Science and Engineering (CSE) alumna, who recently received the 2021 National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship, is now pursuing her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and focused on helping people with Parkinson's disease.

As an undergraduate student, Herbers spent four years playing hockey for the Gophers. She spent a fifth year at CSE to finish up her classes and participate in some research. During that final year, she joined the Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center Internship Program where she worked on medical device development and met one of her co-advisors Art Erdman, the Bakken center director and the Richard C. Jordan Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Herbers also met her other advisor Matt Johnson, a biomedical engineering professor, at the lab—and worked with him on a project related to Parkinson’s. This was the beginning of her curiosity about the disease.

In this Q&A, Cara Herbers talks about how she got into mechanical engineering and what her current research entails.

How did you decide to major in mechanical engineering and then continue graduate school here?

In high school, I really liked math and science so I knew I wanted to do something with that in college. I was really interested in medical school because my mom was a doctor, and I thought that’s what you did if you liked math and science. I mostly came to the U because of the hockey program, but I knew it had great pre-med and engineering programs. When I started at the U, I was actually more interested in biomedical engineering but with hockey it was almost impossible to schedule classes for the program. After talking with some people, I figured out that mechanical engineering was a really great option because you could go into biomedical engineering after graduating. Looking back, I’m really glad I went into mechanical engineering. It gave me a great foundation of engineering principles.

What is your current research about?

My research is focused on developing a way to diagnose postural instability in Parkinson's disease. Postural instability is just a fancy word for bad balance. When people age, they experience bad balance outside of Parkinson's disease, but the way bad balance shows up specific to Parkinson’s disease is very unique and difficult to manage. I was really excited to look at this motor symptom of Parkinson's just because there's so many unknowns with respect to it and, essentially, there's not a great objective way to diagnose postural instability in the clinic.

Additionally, people don't really understand the underlying mechanisms of postural instability and, therefore, it's really hard to treat. There's a lot of these question marks with Parkinson’s specific postural instability, which results in a poor quality of life for people who experience it. After seeing all of the needs within this space, I assessed my skill sets and my passions, and it really seemed like developing some sort of diagnostic tool to assess postural instability was where I could sit best within all of these question marks.

When did you realize you wanted to study Parkinson’s disease?

When people stand still or do different balance tasks, it's been shown that the center of pressure for people with Parkinson's is really different than people without Parkinson's even if they are the same age. So in the elderly population and people with Parkinson's who are elderly, the Parkinson's group has “weird characteristics” about their center of pressure. I found this biomechanical aspect of the disease very interesting, and I wanted to dive deeper into assessing it.

Based on this information, I was inspired to use shoe pressure sensors to essentially collect pressure data and then create a machine-learning algorithm that can classify the difference between people with and without Parkinson's based off of their center pressure characteristics. I also wanted to use these in-shoe pressure sensors to rate the severity of postural instability and Parkinson's disease. Medical technology and diagnostics are really moving towards different types of wearable sensors and the in-shoe pressure sensors seemed like a great way to help people with Parkinson’s disease.

You’re a lab supervisor at the Earl E. Bakken Medical Device Center on the Twin Cities Campus. What do you do there?

In addition to my research, I help supervise the lab. I oversee the daily operations and also direct the intern program now, which is really kind of funny because I was an intern in 2018. This past summer, in 2021, was my first year running the program by myself. It's been fun to see both sides of that. Plus, I get to interact with a lot of undergrad students and share my personal experiences.

Helping to manage the internship program definitely is a lot to balance, especially over the summer when the interns are at the lab. It's a constant mental switch for me. I have to be able to switch back and forth between research mode and then internship director mode. But I think it's taught me a lot about time management and leadership, and all of that good stuff.

What are you hoping to find with your research?

A lot of these studies on center of pressure use force plates that are really expensive and not clinically applicable. So, my thought with these pressure sensors is that they are relatively low cost. They can be worn pretty easily without a lot of intense technical knowledge. The average person can slide these in their shoes without having to understand anything that's going on in the technical realm. They are really easy to use in a clinic or at home.

Essentially, my hope is to develop something that could be used to objectively diagnose postural instability in Parkinson’s patients, so that the motor symptom can be better understood and, therefore, people could treat it better and understand the underlying mechanisms better as well. 

Interview by Anya Normandeau

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