An accomplished MIT research student in healthcare robotics, with numerous scholarships under his belt, A. Michael West is nonchalant about how he chose his path.
“I kind of fell into it,” the mechanical engineering doctoral student says, adding that growing up in suburban California, he was social, athletic and good at math. “I had the classic choice: you can be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. »
Having witnessed his mother’s grueling residency while she studied to be a doctor, and feeling he didn’t enjoy reading and writing enough to become a lawyer, “that left him an engineer”, he says .
Fortunately, he loved physics in high school because, he said, “it gave meaning to the numbers we learned in math,” and later majoring in mechanical engineering at Yale University proved him right.
“I definitely stayed true to that,” West says. “I liked what I was learning.”
As a rising senior at Yale, West was selected to participate in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). The program identifies talented students to spend a summer on the MIT campus, conducting research with mentorship from MIT faculty, postdocs, and graduate students to prepare program participants for graduate study.
For West, the MSRP was an education in what “exactly grad school was like, particularly what it would be like at MIT.”
It was also, and more importantly, a source of validation of West’s ability to succeed at the higher levels of academia.
“It gave me the confidence to apply to top graduate schools, to know that I could actually contribute here and be successful,” West says. “It really gave me the confidence to walk into a room and approach people who obviously know way more than I do about certain topics.”
With MSRP, West also found community and made lasting friendships, he says. “It’s nice to be in spaces where you see a lot of minorities in science, which was the MSRP,” he says.
Having benefited from the MSRP experience, West gave back once he enrolled at MIT by working as an MRSP group leader for two summers. “You can create the same experience for people after you,” he says.
His involvement as a leader and mentor in the MSRP is just one of the ways West has sought to give back. As an undergraduate, for example, he served as president of his school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, and at MIT he served as treasurer of the Black Graduate Student Association and the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers.
“Maybe it’s just a family thing,” West says, “but being a black American, my parents raised me in a way that you always remember where you came from, you remember what our ancestors endured.”
West’s current research — with Neville Hogan, the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering, in the Eric P. and Evelyn E. Newton Laboratory for Biomechanics and Human Rehabilitation — also aims to help others, particularly those who have suffered injuries orthopedic or neurological.
“I’m trying to understand how humans control and manage their movements from a mathematical point of view,” he explains. “If you have a way to quantify movement, then you can measure it better and apply it to robotics, to make better devices to aid rehabilitation.”
During his first year of graduate school, West was selected as a Bernard (Ben) Gold Fellow. In 2022, he was chosen to become a member of MIT-Takeda. THE MIT-Takeda Program, a collaboration between the MIT School of Engineering and Takeda Pharmaceuticals Company, primarily promotes the application of artificial intelligence to benefit human health. As a Takeda Fellow, West studied the ability of the human hand to manipulate objects and tools.
West says the Takeda Fellowship gave him time to focus on his research, with the funding allowing him to give up his job as a teaching assistant. Although he loves teaching and hopes to secure a tenure-track faculty position after earning his doctorate, he says the time commitment to being a teaching assistant is important. During the third year of his doctorate, West was spending about 20 hours per week in a teaching position.
“Having a lot of time to do research is great,” he says. “Learning what you need to know and doing research takes you to the next step. »
In fact, the type of research West conducts is particularly time-consuming. This is at least in part because human motor control involves many automatic and subconscious activities that are, predictably, difficult to understand.
“How do people control these complex, subconscious systems? Understanding this is a slow process. Many conclusions build on each other. You need to have a solid understanding of what is known, what is a working hypothesis, what is testable, what is not, and how to turn the untestable into the testable,” says West, adding: “We won’t understand. how humans control movements during my life.
To progress, West says he must proceed carefully, step by step.
“What are some quick questions I can ask? What questions have already been asked and how can we build on them? That’s when the task becomes less arduous,” he says.
In September, West will begin a fellowship with the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology. Hoping to encourage and facilitate interaction between technology and industry, the company selects five MIT-Accenture Fellows each year.
“What they’re looking for is someone whose research is translational and can have an impact on the industry,” West says. “It’s promising that they are interested in the fundamental research that I am carrying out. I haven’t worked on the translation side yet. This is something I would like to do after I graduate.
While winning prestigious scholarships and advancing human-robot interactions in healthcare, West still remains the laid-back man who “fell” into engineering. He finds time to meet friends on the weekends, took up rugby while at college and maintains a long-distance relationship with his fiancée, with his wedding date set for next summer.
When asked how he would advise his future students when tackling complicated work, his response was predictably relaxed.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There will always be someone who is better than you at something, and that’s a good thing. If there weren’t, life would be a bit boring.