Cindy Lau – Brain Games
By: Nina Bahl
Motivated by a steadfast interest in both biology and art, Cindy Lau found her professional niche when she discovered the Biomedical Communications (BMC) program two years after completing her undergraduate biomedical engineering degree. This past year, the second-year MSc BMC student was awarded the prestigious Alan W. Cole Scholarship in the Vesalius Trust’s 2012 scholarship competition—an honour that undoubtedly reflects her enthusiasm for her work.
The Trust was established by a professional organization of medically-trained visual communicators—the Association of Medical Illustrators—to support education and research programs in the field. Specifically, competitive research scholarships are awarded annually to students enrolled in accredited North American medical illustration programs, with the Alan W. Cole scholarship granted to the top scholar across all institutions. Applicants are evaluated based on background, education, project concept, design, and production plan.
Lau received the award for her master’s research project “NeuroPath: Creating Neural Pathways In Play and In Mind,” an interactive computer game designed to help medical students learn neural pathways. Supervised by BMC advisor Michael Corrin and content expert Dr. Barbara Ballyk, who teaches neuroanatomy as part of the medical school curriculum, Lau is eager to make the highly visual and complex content as understandable as possible.
“Learning how electrical signals travel from the brain to motor segments, or from sensory nerves to the brain—it can be fairly complicated to learn because many pathways cross over at different levels [of the nervous system],” explains Lau. “It’s challenging to learn just through rote memorization and reading textbooks.”
Lau credits her supervisors for prompting her involvement in the project. “Dr. Ballyk encourages her students to draw out the pathways as they learn them. She sees the difficulty they can have firsthand, so she approached me with the problem. Michael Corrin also really encouraged this—especially because it’s a tool that might actually be used by students in a practical, and hopefully helpful way.”
A demo of the game reveals a sleek interface, an engaging method of learning, and remarkable visuals, including the ability to examine the spinal cord at individual vertebral levels. The objective is to build a neural pathway between the brain and body region of interest, as chosen by the user from available cases. “It’s a game in the sense that if you build an incorrect pathway, you lose—but we also try to mimic the temporal element of nervous signal propagation,” comments Lau. “The game is as much about accuracy as it is about time: can you build the correct neural pathway so that the nervous signal propagates without interruption?”
Of her scholarship, Lau relays her gratitude for the guidance and support she has received from both her advisors and peers. “I feel really lucky to have been the recipient,” she continues. “There is a relatively small circle of us in the biomedical communications community, so it’s quite an honour to be recognized among a group of really talented individuals.”
As she nears graduation from BMC, Lau doesn’t lose sight of her goals: “I am determined to finish this project to the best of my ability—not just for the sake of finishing, but to really create a tool that achieves its intended goals. Especially in light of the Vesalius Trust scholarship, I want to give it my absolute best.”