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Joy Franco

PhD candidate, Mechanical Engineering
When I graduated from high school, I thought I wanted to be an artist.

I didn’t have any college prospects at the time, so I started working immediately. About six months later, I enrolled in community college, where I started to study art. I was required to take one science course, so I chose astronomy. I’d never taken any type of physics course before, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I continued going to school for a couple of years, but it was difficult without financial support. Living in the Bay Area and trying to pay my own way through community college felt impossible. I decided to leave school and got into bike racing. I became enamored with the sport. Specifically, the biomechanics behind maximizing energetic output on a bike fascinated me. My friends saw this and said, “Joy, you have to go back to college and finish your degree – you love the science of this sport too much not to pursue something there.”

They were right, so I gave college another try. I started attending community college again, and this is when I was first introduced to neurally-interfaced prosthetics. Neurally-interfaced prosthetics are robotic systems that interface with your brain to create movement in prosthetic limbs. I became intrigued by this field because during my racing days I rode with cyclists who used adaptive technology to overcome mobility challenges. For example, one cyclist I rode with lost his lower leg. Adaptive equipment enabled him to ride. Because of the enormous positive impact of sports in my life, I felt moved by the opportunity to work in an area that would enable people to participate in athletic endeavors, regardless of mobility challenges.

I chose to study mechanical engineering at San Jose State so that I could one day build these types of technologies. Ever since returning to college, I knew that I wanted to pursue a PhD at Stanford. Being accepted to my dream school was the ultimate reward at the end of a long, hard journey. I felt especially lucky to have received a fellowship when I arrived at Stanford. This support has been paramount in enabling me to focus on research. The project I’m working on isn’t funded, so if I didn’t have the fellowship, I would have to TA every quarter, on top of taking classes. That means I’d spend 15% of my week as a TA and 30% working on classes, which leaves little to no time to do the research I’m passionate about. I came here to do research and the fellowship allows me to do just that.

I’m now working with Miriam Goodman and Beth Pruitt in the departments of Molecular and Cellular Physiology, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Specifically, I’m focused on studying the sense of touch and the biophysical basis of mechanotransduction – the conversion of a physical signal into an electrical one. In order for touch to be sensed, the physical touch must be converted from a physical signal into a biochemical signal in a neuron. Through a better understanding of this process, I hope to contribute to the field of neuroscience and help people overcome the mobility challenges that come from disease or age.

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