Renata Saha awarded Cadence Women in Technology scholarship

Doctoral candidate Renata Saha has been awarded a scholarship by Cadence Design Systems as part of its Women in Technology Scholarship program. Currently, Saha is pursuing the development of implantable micrometer-sized coils or microcoils (μcoils), and the experimental investigation of their potential in treating neurological disorders. She is working under the guidance of Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Robert F. Hartmann Chair Jian-Ping Wang.  

Saha comes to the University of Minnesota from Kolkata, India, where she earned her undergraduate degree in electronics and communication engineering. Driven by a keen interest in applying her engineering knowledge to solve real life challenges, she began dabbling in the building of medical devices. She soon designed an internet-of-things (IoT)-based wearable wristband that could monitor key healthcare parameters (such as heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure) of the patient in real time. Prototyping devices however has costs associated with it, and soon Saha found herself drafting a business plan to support her device pitch at national entrepreneurship competitions. The device was positioned as a onestop telehealth solution that could meet the challenge of extending healthcare to people living in rural India. Her idea gained traction and she raised enough money (to the tune of $5000) to build and improve the prototype. Her dorm room served as an electrical laboratory and Saha led a team of five undergraduate engineering students as they worked on and improved the wearable device. She soon established a healthcare start-up, and served as its chief technology office for two years from 2016 to 2018.

Keen on pursuing a graduate degree however, Saha eventually quit her position in the start-up. For someone whose technology role model is Earl Bakken, the inventor of the cardiac pacemaker, the University of Minnesota, located as it is in Medical Alley, seemed an automatic choice. Her conversation with Professor Wang (who would eventually be her advisor) before she applied to the doctoral program in ECE, helped cement her decision. Saha started in the department’s doctoral program in Fall 2018, supported with a three-year College of Science and Engineering fellowship.

Research Interests

Saha’s research addresses the drawbacks of current commercially available electrical stimulation electrodes that provide implantable treatment options for diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and others. As these electrical implants are in direct contact with the surrounding brain tissue, there can be scarring on the tissue around the implants, an occurrence termed biofouling. Patients with these electrical electrodes as implants need to undergo implant replacement surgery quite frequently. On the other hand, the non-invasive brain stimulation technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) does not present biofouling issues. However, as it is non-invasive it does not have the same focus as an electrical implant when targeting brain tissues. 

Saha’s doctoral research seeks to unite the best of both techniques: she is designing μcoils that are like the electrode-like implants but work in accordance with the physics of TMS. Based on Faraday’s Law of electromagnetic induction, when a time-varying current is passed through the μcoils, they generate a magnetic field, which then induces an electric field in the brain. This induced electric field is not in galvanic contact with the brain tissues, making them less prone to corrosion from electrochemical reactions. Saha expects that patients with these μcoil implants will  require less frequent implant replacement surgery. 

Saha’s μcoil array design for the brain opens a new technique in the field of brain stimulation: micromagnetic neurostimulation. Still in its infancy, it promises spatially selective, targeted, and directional neuromodulation. Her work on micromagnetic stimulation of the hippocampal neurons (in vitro) and rat sciatic nerve (in vivo) are indicative of how this recently developed technology can be an alternative implantable treatment option for epilepsy and chronic pain. Recently, in a collaborative undertaking with neurosurgeons from the Mayo Clinic, Saha’s microcoils were implanted in live rat brains (in vivo), which triggered dopamine release. This was a first in the history of micromagnetic stimulation, and indicates that the microcoil implant as a potential treatment option could even be extended to diseases such as Parkinson’s and depression. Her research has led to the filing of two US patents.

Cadence Scholarship and other awards

For Saha, the Cadence Women in Technology scholarship is particularly meaningful. As she has made her way through academia, from her undergraduate engineering degree program to her doctoral program and research, she has found increasingly fewer female peers to share her journey with. 

Saha views the recognition she has received through the Cadence scholarship as an opportunity to inspire the next generation women to pursue a career in science and technology. 

Saha’s research has been steadily gaining traction. In 2019, she won the best poster award in the neural category at the University’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM) Annual Conference. In the same year, her research won the people’s choice award at the Magnetism and Magnetic Material conference (held in Las Vegas) in the Magnetism as Art showcase. In this, she was supported by a travel grant awarded by the Masonic Cancer Center’s Brain Tumor Program at the University. In 2020, two of her publications were featured on the front covers of the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics (52, 465002) and the Journal of Applied Physics (126, 183902). She was also awarded the IEM Walter Barnes Lang Fellowship to support her research presentation at the Magnetic Carrier Meeting 2020 scheduled to be held in London, UK. Unfortunately, the conference was canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions. Saha was also recognized with the Trusted Reviewer status (2020) and Outstanding Reviewer Award (2021) by the Institute of Physics for her professional service as a reviewer of international journal submissions. Most recently, Saha has been selected to attend iREDEFINE, an NSF-funded workshop  to be held in New Orleans in March. Organized by the ECE Department Head Association (ECEDHA) across the United States and Canada, selection for attendance at the workshop is competitive, and Saha is one of only 29 students across the two nations who are scheduled to attend the workshop.

In previous years, ECE students Vidya Chhabria, Meghna Madhusudan, Susmita Dey Manasi, and Wen Zhou have received the Cadence Women in Technology scholarships.