The Sky’s the Limit

Rachel Bellisle ’18 took advantage of every opportunity that came her way at URI, from playing oboe in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble to working in laboratories and participating in internships. Now she’s pondering a career tied to the cosmos.

“I loved my time at URI,” said the recent biomedical engineering grad. “It opened up a lot of opportunities for me, and I’m incredibly grateful for those opportunities.”

Now she’s set to enroll in the highly-competitive Health Sciences and Technology graduate program of Harvard and MIT, one of the country’s oldest and largest biomedical engineering and physician-scientist training programs, where she’ll study the emerging disciplines of bioastronautics and medical engineering. She was accepted as a doctoral student in the program’s Medical Engineering and Medical Physics program, one of just 25 students accepted each year. Her entire five- to seven-year graduate program has been funded by a fellowship from Draper Laboratories.

“The point of the program is to choose a standard engineering discipline and apply it to the medical field,” Bellisle said. “We also get to take pre-clinical courses with medical students to get the perspective of someone in the clinical field and understand the implications of our work.”

A Love for Research

As a URI student, Bellisle didn’t wait long to delve into biomedical engineering research. She was a sophomore when she worked in Professor Walt Besio’s Neuro Rehabilitation Laboratory studying an electrode Besio invented to better understand brain signals.

“We were seeing a slow wave frequency in the electrode signals and he didn’t know where it came from,” Bellisle said. “I did some experiments to see if it came from microsaccades, the tiny movements in our eyes that happen when we fixate on something.” The results of her research were presented at the International Engineering in Medicine and Biology conference in South Korea in 2017.

Last summer Bellisle had an internship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., working at the world’s largest research hospital where she analyzed the results of tests of an exoskeleton developed to help children with cerebral palsy improve their walking ability.

“Some kids with cerebral palsy have a gait disorder where their knees are more flexed than usual, so the exoskeleton helps them extend their knees to promote a more efficient walking pattern,” Bellisle said. “It was in the early stages of testing, but eventually they hope to use it as a rehabilitation device. The purpose of the device is to train the user to not need the device.”

The experience of living with 16 other interns from around the country and working in such a prestigious facility inspired Bellisle.“ It was a game changer,” she said. “I went into it not knowing quite what I wanted to do after graduation, and throughout the course of the internship I discovered exactly what I wanted to do and found I was ready to go to grad school.”

Looking Ahead

Bellisle’s program will allow her to pursue her interests in neuro-engineering, biomechanics, and assistive devices, like the exoskeleton she studied in Maryland. She was one of just two students accepted into the program’s Bioastronautics Training Program, where she will study the effects of space flight on the human body. 

“I’m still not positive that bioastronautics is the direction I’m going to go with my career, but it’s something I want to explore,” she said. “It’s a very specific field, but the applications are amazing. It’s an area that I’ve always been interested in.”