It was during the summer, when she was a summer research assistant in the lab of her professor that innovation struck Arnelle Etienne. The Carnegie Mellon University sophomore, a student of electrical engineering professor Pulkit Grover, realized there was a problem. The solution came to her in a dream.
There, working on the intersection of neuroscience and engineering, Etienne saw that there was a glaring issue with a basic piece of brain imaging equipment that made it less useful for Black people.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) measures the electrical activity in a person’s brain using electrodes placed along one’s scalp; however, these electrodes could not easily be placed on the head of someone with coarse and curly hair, like Etienne.
So, she developed special electrode clips that could fit between braids or cornrows and remain close to the scalp for an accurate EEG reading. She just had to sleep on it.
Etienne is the first author on a proof-of-concept study describing the new clips and braiding method. The study was posted on the preprint service BioRxiv in February, and Etienne will be presenting it virtually at a top materials science conference in July. She’s also working with Grover on patenting and commercializing the clips.
Etienne, 24, graduated in 2019 with a major that she created herself, called Technology and Humanistic Studies.
This month, Inverse spoke to Etienne about her innovation. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH SCIENCE?
I grew up in a slightly suburban, slightly rural part of Maryland called Clarksburg, where the whole neighborhood is essentially a farm except for where our houses are. Me and my sister were very much tomboys growing up, and so we would be in the backyard digging up rocks and worms. And that was really our intro to science; we loved nature and just being out in the backyard. The ground where I live is very clay-like and rocky, so there were what looked like crystals to us. We were like, "Ooh, we're gonna make jewelry!"
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST BREAKTHROUGH IN SCIENCE?
In college in my programming class, my final project was this module that helps you learn how to harmonize. So that was my first "Oh my gosh" moment like, I really picked the right major, I can do this, I figured out what I want to do within the space.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST FAILURE IN SCIENCE?
I was a very traditional but non-traditional student: I was in all the gifted and talented stuff, but I didn't know I had ADHD at the time — I found out in college. I was struggling to be on top of it, because I was fighting this thing that I didn't know I was fighting. My entire college experience was an uphill fight. One of the things that Carnegie Mellon University likes to foster is interdisciplinary stuff. But there are different types of approaches to being interdisciplinary, and I think the way that my mind works doesn't always align with traditional academia. While I can still thrive in these spaces, it still is kind of a battle.
My first major failure was my first year of college because I failed the intro class, 18-100: “Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering.” I just didn't get it. But I still love math and science, and I was just like, "What is going on?" I liked the material that we were learning, it was just not at the right pace for me. And then you have ADHD halfway through college, and you're like, "Yo, me not paying attention in class makes so much sense."
WAS BEING DIAGNOSED WITH ADHD A CLARIFYING MOMENT FOR YOU IN TERMS OF YOUR ACADEMIC STRUGGLES?
I think academia in general has structural issues it needs to address in terms of accessibility. When we say diversity and inclusion, your population can be diverse, but if you don't address the needs of each type of person, then it's not actual inclusion. So I think it was a combination of fighting typical systemic college things, and then also fighting this thing within myself, so a one-two punch.
WHAT’S THE ORIGIN STORY OF YOUR INNOVATION?
I was taking Pulkit's class, and I was having the roughest time in college. I ended up having to drop this class, but I was in his office so much for office hours that he knew how I thought, and he knew that I had potential. And so I asked him if I could research with him one summer, and he said yes. Then I get to the group, and they're doing really amazing things with high-density EEG.
As I'm reading about EEG, I'm like, "Well, how does this work for my hair type? Stressful!" and no one really had an answer.
Not to be dramatic, but absolutely to be dramatic, I literally had a dream one night where I saw this prototype, being all extra, 3D-rotating. As I work on it, a piece of it ends up becoming this clip that we then develop and test on and perfect, but it was the most dramatic She-Ra, Legend of Korra, Avatar story. Like, it's too much.
WERE YOU SURPRISED THAT WHAT SEEMS LIKE SUCH A BASIC PROBLEM HADN’T BEEN SOLVED?
I want to say yes, but no, just because I know how science works. It's a combination of the system and then what we're conditioned to want. Everyone wants to be on the cutting edge, so anything that's not deemed as cutting edge, it's going to be harder to find funding for.
There's also a lack of systemic consistency. If I go to an EEG tech in an area that primarily serves Black people, and they're used to my hair type, I probably won't have an issue. I actually had an EEG done in Virginia. I ended up being fine, but they did an EEG on me and I'm half-passed out, like, "Can we talk later about your methods for applying the electrodes?"
WHAT’S NEW ABOUT YOUR INNOVATION?
One of the things that we were looking at in the beginning was ambulatory EEG, that's like long-term recordings. I was inspired in terms of what are hairstyles that can be worn for long periods of time. I know that a lot of people in the Black community put on cornrows underneath anything when they need to have their hair secure for a long period of time, so I was like, "Okay, boom, that works." And then also, there's this system for applying electrodes called the 10-20 system. I looked at the graph, and I was like, "This kind of looks like it could fit in between the cornrows, too." I can use the cornrows as a guide for applying the electrodes, they can help them stay longer, and then you won't have to reapply electrodes as the experiment goes on. That sometimes happens where you put an electrode, the hair pushes it up, and you have to reapply.
WHAT’S BEEN THE MOST MEANINGFUL FAN MAIL YOU’VE RECEIVED?
One of my friends on Twitter tagged me because somebody else with a Ph.D. had tweeted about an article [about the study]. People in the comments were like, "Oh my gosh, I wish this was around when I had my EEG.” There have also been colleges reaching out to us to collaborate as well and people who are like, "Okay, are you done testing it? Because I want to buy it."
WHAT’S A PROBLEM YOU’D LIKE TO SOLVE IN YOUR CAREER?
General bias in science, because I think everything that we do as humans reflects upon the past, and if we're aware that the past is flawed, what are we doing to look at the patterns of the past and then change them? And two, general accessibility within academic spaces. We live in a time where if you go to college, you have to have a laptop, but somehow laptops aren't considered something that should be part of your financial aid package, and I find that extremely confusing. Things like the reimbursement systems within academia are incredibly classist.
WHAT’S THE MOST USEFUL PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED, AND WHO GAVE IT TO YOU?
In that programming class that I did the [musical harmony] project for, Professor [David] Kosbie, he would give advice to everyone to be yourself and socialize and don't take the homework too seriously. I went into his office, I was struggling, and he was like, "Oh, I wasn't talking to you." He taught me the importance of knowing when a piece of advice applies to you. It really caused me to be critical and be like, “Does this apply to me? Do I need help being told to hang out with my friends? No.”
THAT’S SO META.
There's a proverb that says, "Eat the fish, leave the bones," and I feel like that's also what it's saying. It's like, take what you need and what you can digest, and then the things that are not for you — leave them.
WHAT’S ONE THING MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU?
I’m pretty much an open book. The most secretive thing about me is that I was on the tennis team in high school, so I like to joke that I’m a Varsity Athlete.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NEXT?
The research got accepted into EMBC [a top medical and biological engineering conference]. I’m putting my talk together right now with my colleagues. Everything's virtual now, so it's going to be a video that we just play.
I'm already in the process of patent stuff with the clips with Precision Neuroscopics, which is an offshoot of the lab. We're working to commercialize a lot of the ideas that we have. A lot of times with engineering, I feel like we engineer for engineering's sake, and so it's good to see us being like, "Alright, how do we get this in the hands of people?"
WHAT’S A PREDICTION YOU HAVE FOR 2030?
I see a world that looks very different to how it is now. I see a world where community is valued a lot more than it is, and where people have their own gardens and trade veggies with their friends — this is the world the liberals want!
If there's anything that Covid-19 taught us, it was to get back to the basics in so many ways. And so I think there will be a lot more emphasis on reviving those domestic and homestyle arts that really fueled a lot of our communities before.
WHO WOULD YOU WANT TO PLAY YOU IN THE MOVIE OF YOUR INNOVATION?
I would love Amber Riley to play me. She's beautiful, and she can sing down.
SO IT’S A MOVIE MUSICAL? WHAT WOULD SOME OF THE MUSIC BE LIKE?
It would absolutely be a musical. Anyone who knows me and my family is like, “The Etiennes, it's always like a musical in their house. They feel like they're the von Trapps.”
WHO’S A SCIENTIST YOU WANT TO SHOUT OUT?
I want to shout out Ph.D. candidate Jasmine Kwasa. She is a huge mentor and inspiration to me and many other Black people in the CMU community. She really does what she can to help us grow as academics and as people. From a research standpoint, she's amazing, and then from a personal standpoint, she gets me.
She likes to create communities as well. She and another friend Shena Marshall started something where we'd go to Wing Wednesday at a local Black-owned bar.
IS THERE ANY OTHER ADVICE YOU’D OFFER BASED ON YOUR LIFE EXPERIENCE?
Being able to listen and accept critique, even if it's not nice, is an important life skill. There's a lot of historical context that one needs to learn to understand the rage that people have and the justifiable anger that people have right now.
HOW DO YOU UNWIND?
I love to create moments, as my friends always say. I love to have people over and cook for them, and just kick back and talk and dance and sing. I used to cook to help pay my rent in college. I'd be like, "Y'all, I'm making jerk chicken mac and cheese." One of my other favorite things is being able to cook really bomb vegan and vegetarian food, even though I'm not one myself. I grew up Sunday Adventist and a lot of us are vegetarians and vegans, so I learned how to make that type of food. My mom's an amazing cook, so she taught me how to always season it correctly.
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR COOKING?
I used to watch Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade Cooking when I was a kid. So the idea of taking something store-bought and then just kind of flipping it a little bit, like, I will take a mac and cheese box and then throw some garlic powder, onion powder, you know, hook it up.
Later on in life, I want to have a restaurant as an ode to my mom and my godmom, her best friend, who passed right before my freshman year. They were going to do a Jamaican-Haitian cookbook because my mom is Jamaican and my dad's Haitian, and so was her best friend. I want to do an ode to them with that, and then a brunch spot because I used to throw brunches.
HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT NAMES FOR THESE RESTAURANTS?
I don't know that yet, I'll let that come to me in a dream.