Class of 2022: Biomedical engineering student blends research experience with a service-minded outlook
When Justin Laiti, a senior in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics (BEAM), walks the stage at graduation, he adds crucial steps to his lifelong journey of service. Embodying Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Laiti has long walked the walk when it comes to dedicating his life to helping others.
Named BEAM’s Outstanding Undergraduate Student 2022, Laiti graduates with the first cohort of biomedical engineering majors in the College of Engineering.
Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, Laiti has strived to prioritize service opportunities since he was a teenager. His older sister’s involvement in Young Hearts, a nonprofit that supports children and young adults dealing with loss or serious illness, inspired his own participation. After his sister went off to college — at Virginia Tech — Laiti continued volunteering, having recognized the importance of helping others in his life. He followed that trail of service to the bioengineering program at Virginia Tech.
“It just made sense to come here,” Laiti said. “At first, I felt like I was just following my older sister. But visiting her here and feeling so welcome, feeling the community of Virginia Tech, that is what made me feel this was the place for me. The school’s emphasis on service, in its very motto, made it feel a perfect fit for me. Plus, its engineering program is well-known and has a great reputation.”
Laiti jumped right into service activities at Virginia Tech, too. He joined Alpha Phi Omega, a coed service-oriented fraternity, his first year. Alpha Phi Omega’s regular activities include being Lunch Buddies with elementary-school students, entertaining animals at local shelters, and playing bingo with residents at local nursing homes.
Unfortunately, the in-person components of these events ended when COVID-19 restrictions began in March 2020. However, Laiti worked with his fraternity members to preserve community connections by shifting the Lunch Buddies project to a pen-pal project. The elementary students love getting the letters from fraternity and community members, Laiti said, and they write back and forth biweekly.
Laiti also quickly discovered the service component of his field of study, biomedical engineering. Through innovative research, he and his senior design team developed a device to report dialysis patients' vitals, applying knowledge he gained on wearable devices in a BEAM lab.
He was drawn to the program after a single day in the lab with Clay Gabler, a former BEAM professor who passed away last year.
“Clay Gabler sparked my interest in research,” Laiti said. “I was inspired by his world-renowned contributions to his field, as well as his ability to create an environment that balanced a light-hearted, supportive community with an intense drive to foster high-quality results. He was the friendliest professor and incredibly hard-working. I thought I didn’t like research, but he completely changed my mind about that.”
Laiti went on to join the team in the Center for Injury Biomechanics, where he met Grace Wusk, who earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in 2021. Through her research, he learned how wearable sensors for astronauts could help researchers understand their stress and workload. Laiti enjoyed the project so much that he applied for an internship with NASA’s Langley Research Center and accepted an opportunity to analyze pilot simulation data last summer. Laiti collected data on eye movement, signs of fatigue, and other body signals that could point to poor performance.
Feeling a strong desire to continue the research, Laiti proposed a study of his own to the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, which awarded him an undergraduate scholarship. Laiti’s small-scale human research study, set for completion this semester, tracks eye movement and brain activity to identify countermeasures for fatigue, stress, and other unsafe cognitive states and ultimately will recommend safety-enhancing correctives, such as ambient lighting, to help with focus.
This semester, Laiti will also finalize and present his senior design project. Alongside teammates, he is developing a wearable device for dialysis patients that can report vitals such as bodily fluid content, temperature, and heart rate. Physicians could use the data to tailor a patient’s dialysis treatment and identify more effective measures. Additionally, the team hopes to empower patients to better monitor and understand their own vitals by developing an application to work with the sensors.
Laiti’s inspiration for the project came after visiting dialysis patients at the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center as part of an interdisciplinary course for biomedical engineers and industrial design majors. In the course, the students’ task was to identify health care needs of patients in clinical settings and then design, build, and test a prototype to address those needs.
Ultimately, Laiti wants to work in the field of neuroengineering and use his knowledge of wearable sensors to advance treatments for mental health and neurological disorders. But for now, he hopes to continue his bioengineering research in graduate school by combining his research experience and his service-oriented outlook.
Laiti received the Nathanial Gebreyes Service Scholarship from the Student Engineers Council during his sophomore year at Virginia Tech. The award honors engineering students who display service in their daily lives.
“Service to me is about exploring ways to collaborate, in a mutually beneficial manner, with the communities around me,” he said. “My exploration of service has been a fundamental part of my experience as a student at Virginia Tech and as a member of the Blacksburg community, transforming the way I hope to engage within communities throughout my life.”