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USC engineer breaks down barriers, spurring research

by Stephanie Shimada
Francisco Valero-Cuevas and his students conduct research in the fields of neuroscience, biomechanics and robotics.
Francisco Valero-Cuevas and his students conduct research in the fields of neuroscience, biomechanics and robotics.

Step into Francisco Valero-Cuevas’ Brain-Body Dynamics Lab at USC, and you’ll find a neuroscientist, biomedical engineer and mechatronics engineer among the eight researchers who come from different backgrounds and varied research interests.

Valero-Cuevas, professor of biomedical engineering, biokinesiology and physical therapy at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, studies how the brain controls our bodies. He also has a knack for bringing students together to work toward a common goal. And these days that means finding possible solutions for the increasingly complex challenges facing medicine, science and robotics.

This summer Valero-Cuevas worked with students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the country’s largest public university, during a summer internship.

The handpicked students spent eight weeks in a lab that aligned with their personal interests. If they liked the program, they could apply for a USC PhD program whose costs would be covered by a fellowship.

The program was designed as part of an agreement that Valero-Cuevas and USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos created between USC and The National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico (CONACyT) in 2010.

“This program adds a new dimension of understanding between Mexico and the U.S.,” Valero-Cuevas said.

Since the program’s inception, Valero-Cuevas has brought five to six PhD students annually to USC.

“USC wishes and has the opportunity to be a leading partner with Latin America,” Valero-Cuevas said. “This can be accomplished through interaction, education and collaboration with some of the best institutions in Latin America.”

John Rocamora, a PhD in mechatronics, is one of the gifted students enlisted by Valero-Cuevas.

“I owe Francisco for my being here [at USC] and being in grad school,” Rocamora said.

In his lab, Valero-Cuevas and the students work to design robotic systems that exhibit actual human performance. Their research is drawn from an array of disciplines, including neuroscience, biomechanics and robotics. Valero-Cuevas also works on rehabilitation and restoration tools for occupational therapy and physical therapy, including clinical devices that measure and strengthen the neural and muscular interactions that produce function, thereby improving hand and leg dexterity.

Valero-Cuevas, who grew up in Mexico City and went on to earn his PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, was inspired to initiate USC’s agreement with CONACyT because he realized that USC, Stanford, Cornell and other top universities attract many international students, but fewer from Mexico.

Beyond his outreach efforts, Valero-Cuevas, who was honored at the 2011 Mellon Mentoring Awards, serves as a role model in and outside the lab.

“He motivates his students,” Rocamora said. “He always motivates you to push forward and even the ideas by themselves are so interesting and fun.”

Rocamora also praised Valero-Cuevas for his extensive knowledge and research expertise.

“He knows how to deal with every part, from the technical to the biological to the clinical,” Rocamora said.

Alexander Reyes, a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at USC, said the professor “has this uncanny ability to find the links between two different people, from two very different backgrounds, and bring them together to collaborate.”

Valero-Cuevas is known as a charismatic fellow by his students.

Reyes recalled one particular gathering when the professor started talking about his research to a full room. Everyone stopped what they were doing.

“All of a sudden, people’s heads were turning, and everyone was interested in what he was talking about,” Reyes said. “He is very captivating, very passionate about the research that he does.”

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