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Science + Technology + Design = Innovations at Duke

January 5, 2024 | Margo Lakin
Originally published by Trinity College Communications


Athena Yao has been interested in neuroscience from the moment she picked up a book in her high school library addressing the science of stress and motivation.

“I was trying to figure out the source of my own stress and how I could develop a better sense of control over my life,” she shares. “It was fascinating to learn about the biological basis of emotion and behavior.”

After witnessing the impacts Alzheimer’s had on her grandfather and family, the Neuroscience major, who is also minoring in Computer Science and Visual Media Studies (VMS), came to Duke with a determined interest in memory and neurodegenerative diseases.

As a first-year student, she joined Duke’s Motivated Cognition & Aging Brain Lab and was involved in fMRI studies on the effects of aging on episodic memory-dependent decision making. She also helped spearhead curriculum development for the first neuroscience extension to the Duke Summer Training in Academic Research (STAR) Program, working with graduate students to identify guest lecturers and to create lesson plans based on their research. 

Sophomore year brought both an independent study focused on the UI/UX design of augmented reality application for epilepsy surgery — developed by Duke researchers — and the opportunity for multidisciplinary work that piqued her interest in the intersections of healthcare, technology and innovation.

“From meeting with my VMS advisor for feedback on design mockups to interviewing neurosurgeons to better understand the current surgical workflow and need for innovation, I had the chance to work across disciplines,” she explains. Our application aimed to enable 3D anatomical visualization, thus improving surgical resection accuracy and patient outcomes.”

And if that wasn’t enough, she co-taught a house course on neurological diseases and spent the fall semester of her junior year studying abroad as a neuroscience affiliate student at University College London, where she did a deep dive into the neurobiological basis of neurological disorders, neuropharmacology and human-computer interaction.

But her passion for the arts is just as strong and established. Drawing and painting since childhood, Yao knew she wanted to be a part of AAHVS at Duke. As a first-year, she took Advanced Painting with Professor Beverly J McIver and completed a commissioned painting for the private dining room of Cucciolo Terrazza in Raleigh.

“It was incredibly rewarding to bring our shared vision for the project to life and to see my paintings on the wall at the restaurant’s grand opening,” she says. “And when I decided to make the switch to visual & media studies and spearhead an independent study combining my interests in healthcare and design, I found a tremendous amount of support from the department.”

And thanks to her VMS courses, Yao has been introduced to topics within interface design, visual culture and various forms of digital media that constantly inform how she perceives the world and engages with emerging technologies — such as mixed reality and generative AI.

We sat down with the busy senior to learn how she landed on her unique major/minor combination, her post-graduate plans and the benefits of pursuing a STEAM education.  

How did you arrive at your science, technology and arts combination?

Originally, I came to Duke as a prospective Neuroscience and Visual Arts double major on the pre-med track. During the summer of 2021, I worked as a design intern at Rendever, a virtual reality company co-founded by a Duke alum who is working to reduce social isolation in senior living communities.

I also participated in Story+ on the project Camera Digita: Portraits of AI’s Role in the Futures of All, which gave me the opportunity to experiment with digital media in creating a final product that synthesized research with storytelling. These experiences sparked my interest in visual & media studies at Duke.

The following semester, through Visual & Media Studies, I spearheaded an independent study on the UI/UX design of an augmented reality app for neurosurgery. At that point, I was considering a double major in Neuroscience and Visual & Media Studies, but ultimately decided to add a Computer Science minor because I was inspired by my peers in Project Edge and The Cube, Duke’s innovation & entrepreneurship living learning community. I wanted to develop the technical skills to bring technological innovations and designs to life.

I’m now pursuing a B.S. in Neuroscience with minors in Computer Science and Visual & Media Studies, a combination that represents the serendipitous experiences I’ve had in bringing together science, technology and design at Duke.

Do you find that your arts and STEM courses are mutually beneficial?

The crosstalk between my studies in neuroscience, computer science and visual & media studies has given me a unique perspective. As an artist at heart, I’ve found that my VMS courses offer a creative outlet while also enabling me to use my design skills to contribute to innovation in healthcare and technology.

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Athena Yao with a recent oil painting.
Athena Yao with a recent oil painting.

I’m encouraged to consider creative ways to explore neuroscience, from the augmented reality app for neurosurgery to 3D printing my own brain from an MRI scan. And my neuroscience courses have helped inform my understanding of design and visual perception. I often incorporate principles from neuroscience and psychology when thinking about user behavior and interaction.

My VMS courses enable me to find balance within my STEM-heavy coursework, while helping me bring a new perspective to the table. I believe that innovation is catalyzed at the intersection of different fields and disciplines, each of which offer a new way of thinking.

In many of my STEM courses, I’m often learning how the world works and the more defined measures of success: recollection of physics equations and laws in solving a problem set, passing all test cases on a computer science project and synthesis of neuroanatomical facts and observations to arrive at the most accurate conclusion for a clinical case.

In the arts, there is more room for ambiguity and creativity, and I have the freedom to create something new in an environment in which there are no right or wrong answers. 

After such a prolific four years as an undergraduate at Duke, what’s in store for you after graduation?

I plan to return to New York and begin my career in health tech/biotechnology. A few years down the line, I’m also interested in pursuing an M.B.A. or other graduate degree and potentially starting my own venture, with the goal of continuing to leverage technological innovation to improve human health.