Rusty Ludwigsen with Bill Shuttleworth, PhD Rusty Ludwigsen with Bill Shuttleworth, PhD

Bringing it All Back Home

Local High School Science Whiz to Study at UNM

As a recent high school graduate with abundant passion, dedication and intellect, Rusty Ludwigsen could have pursued his goals just about anywhere.

But after being awarded the prestigious Regents' Scholarship from The University of New Mexico, Rusty opted to enroll at UNM to continue his work in the School of Medicine’s Department of Neuroscience and publish his results in migraine/stroke research.

Rusty’s love of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine – started at an early age. His passionate pursuit of his interests has led to many awards and regional, national and international, and his participation in the programs offered by UNM’s STEM-H Center – the Central New Mexcio Science & Engineering Research Challenge and the Junior Science & Humanities Symposium – has been a catalyst for his success.

The youngest of five brothers in a family of engineers, computer scientists and clinical professionals, Rusty developed love for experimenting at an early age. He took apart and reassembled small gadgets to understand their inner workings and built his own devices out of scraps of wood, metal wire and screws from his father’s workshop.

In time, Rusty started showcasing his skills in the many programs offered through the UNM STEM-H Center. He first entered the Central New Mexico Science & Engineering Research Challenge in 6th grade and over the next seven years conducted novel research attempting to solve real-world problems.

As part of the competition, he made displays to show the development and experimental processes of his projects, the first of which was a solar-heated pet house. Rusty then spent several years developing and testing an affordable brace to passively damp uncontrollable tremors of the hands and arms for people with movement disorders.

His inspiration came while attending a scientific conference where he witnessed two men trying to take notes but struggling to form even a single legible letter as their hands moved erratically. He watched as they repositioned their papers, pencils and bodies in a futile effort to control their own muscles.

There are advanced devices to help people with these problems, but Rusty knew they relied on active damping, which uses electronic sensing technology to counteract the motions of the hand. This technology is expensive and fragile, making it relatively inaccessible to those who need it. He stayed awake well into the night sketching and designing an affordable brace that could help these men and others like them.     

Rusty’s brace uses inexpensive materials and viscoelastic foam to passively damp tremors without moving parts, sensors or computers. He first designed and built a mechanical  model of a trembling arm to test his brace. Later, tested the brace with tremor patients in the UNM Gait Laboratory, using their feedback to quantify the brace’s effectiveness.

Rusty next turned his attention to other STEM subjects – biochemistry and cellular biology are his current interests. He has volunteered as an intern in the Department of Neuroscience studying migraine, stroke and traumatic brain injury under his mentor Bill Shuttleworth, PhD, and graduate student Katelyn Reinhart.

Rusty is testing a novel stroke therapy that protects the vulnerable tissue surrounding the site of a brain injury without interrupting the brain’s own protective mechanism. This treatment might help people who have suffered stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Rusty finds that explaining and communicating his research to judges and other student researchers is the key to success in science competitions. He is a four-time grand award winner at the International Science and Engineering Fair, as well as the recipient of several special awards. He has also competed at the regional and national levels of the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, and he has been awarded several scholarships for his work.

Rusty’s research has also won cash awards and many other honors. He was recently selected as one of two high school seniors to represent New Mexico at the 2019 National Youth Science Camp in Virginia and Washington, D.C. The camp gives the brightest STEM students the opportunity to learn from experts and step outside their comfort zones through both academic and outdoor activities.

“Through healthy competition in STEM, I have developed a strong work ethic and an unyielding motivation to continue learning and experimenting,” Rusty says. “I know my passions lie in the biological sciences. As an undergraduate at UNM, I plan to continue my work in the Department of Neuroscience, study biochemistry and then pursue an MD/PhD, eventually both practicing and researching in medicine.”

Categories: Top Stories, School of Medicine, Research, Education, Features

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