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Portrait of Lara Weed leaning against a marble sphere in the Science and Engineering Quad in springtime.

Lara Weed

PhD candidate
I was always interested in how the world worked, and looking back now, I can see my interest in performance optimization developing over time.

As a 5-year-old, I’d leap around the house trying to minimize the number of steps it took for me to get anywhere. By 7, I’d become a competitive gymnast, and throughout my elementary and high school years, I trained up to 25 hours a week, which meant a lot of time spent thinking about how to manage and optimize my academic and sports performance.

I first started using wearables, a Fitbit, in high school to track my stats. During that same time, I was experiencing one of the most challenging things I ever encountered as an athlete – the development of the menstrual cycle. As a gymnast, I noticed physical fluctuations throughout the month that changed how my body moved. My back and hips, for example, would become much tighter during that time, and I actually had quite a few injuries that likely stemmed from not understanding those cyclical changes. One of the things we know today is that ligament laxity changes around the menstrual cycle, but there was no education available about that at the time.

That experience, along with my fascination with wearable sensors, led to my widespread interests in women’s health, biometrics, sleep, and circadian rhythms. I did my undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, then came to Stanford for my master’s and PhD. I was so fortunate to find my PI, Professor Jamie Zeitzer, who is one of the leading experts in human sleep and circadian rhythm. I don’t think I could have done this type of interdisciplinary PhD elsewhere, especially without the unique resources like the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance and NeuroTech Training Program.

Today I’m working to understand the impact of sleep, circadian rhythms, and the menstrual cycle on neuromuscular performance in women. We just completed a large study where we used wearable sensors to remotely monitor women aged 18 to 30 for 28 days – something that wasn’t possible even five years ago. We then brought them into the lab at the hypothesized peak and low points of performance for a battery of physical tests to evaluate things like muscle strength, coordination, and postural control.

Research like this will hopefully improve our understanding of the normal fluctuations women can experience over the menstrual cycle, helping us both to optimize our daily lives and to determine if a symptom we experience can be attributed to the menstrual cycle or to something else. I’m also working to improve the ability of wearable sensors to report meaningful information on our health, such as when sleep disturbance might be related to an undiagnosed illness.

As a first-generation grad student, I didn’t know what to expect from the experience, so I got involved in student organizations. I’m the chair of the Dean’s Graduate Student Advisory Council, and previously served as president of the Bioengineering Graduate Student Association, where I’m proud to have helped create a handbook to help students adjust to the graduate experience. I’m also very interested in mentoring and helping bring forward the next generation of researchers.

As for my future, I suspect I’d like to work in academia, but in my field of wearable sensors, there’s a big need to translate that technology out of the laboratory, so I could see spinning off companies when that technology needs to be commercialized and brought to the public or a medical technology space. For me, the underlying motivation is finding out how we can all live the best life possible.

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