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Alumna Hew Works With German Space Agency on Edema Research

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

As an undergraduate, Monica Hew (BSAE ’13) packed countless activities into her schedule to help reach her goal of someday flying to space.

UTA Aerospace Engineering alumna Monica Hew hikes 15,000 feet up to the summit of a mountain while working with the German Space AgencyShe competed in martial arts, became a licensed Emergency Medical Technician, was certified as a technical scuba diver and was part of a team that ran a Wireless Strain Sensing System in Space Application aboard a NASA aircraft that simulated zero gravity.

Now a doctoral student at Stanford, Hew is studying space environment, such as meteoroid impacts on spacecraft, and hopes to defend her dissertation this spring. She spent time doing Engineers in Service in Nepal in 2017 and recently spent six months at the German Space Center (DLR) in Cologne studying how tissue swelling, or edema, develops in an oxygen-deprived environment. As part of her research, she hiked 15,000 feet up to the top of a mountain and ran experiments on altitude sickness for two weeks.

“I received a government research grant from DADD (the German Academic Exchange) that funded a 6-month fellowship. I was able to collaborate with DLR on this project, which allowed me to combine my background in aerospace engineering with my skills as an EMT and diver to do research on this important topic,” Hew said.

“Most of the crew, me included, developed altitude sickness, but we had to power through and complete our work.”

Understanding how edema occurs in low oxygen environments is important, because it can indicate serious physiological issues, such as the failure of microcirculation. Astronauts often show signs of edema, such as a puffy face, and the results of Hew’s research could be useful in identifying potential problems and determining any treatment that might be necessary.

“One of the biggest problems of space travel is that we have very little knowledge of the effects of space on human physiology,” Hew said. “This research was about space medicine and environmental effects on humans, which was an interesting combination of my skills. Once I finish my doctoral degree, I want to transition more to this aspect of space environment.”

Hew spent her first month with DLR racing to design and manufacture experiment equipment to conduct tissue measurements. Previously, measurements were taken with an ultrasound probe, but the results were skewed because the human holding the probe couldn’t replicate the exact angle and pressure used every time. She developed a machine to take the measurements and eliminated that issue. In fact, the device was able to achieve a resolution of 0.2 mm on average for tissue thickness measurement, compared to 1.4 mm resolution on average in tests performed by a person. This is an important achievement, as the daily edema evolution for a patient can range from 0.5 to 1 mm in thickness.

Once her equipment was ready, Hew set out as part of a team that hiked to the top of a mountain, a journey that took two days and was made more difficult because every member of the team was beset by altitude sickness. When they finally reached the top, they set up their experiments in a hut at the summit and recruited mountain climbers who happened to be climbing the mountain to participate in the study. Back in the lab, Hew developed software to automatically analyze tissue thickness.

“Engineering is very enabling. UTA gave me a good set of skills which are the basis for the skills I’m developing now, like image analysis and sensor design, that I used to build equipment, design software and run experiments in an extreme environment,” Hew said.

At UTA, Hew was the first-ever winner of the Boeing/Flightglobal Undergraduate Student of the Year Award and was named a Penton’s Aviation Week Twenty20. She earned the College of Engineering's Outstanding Student Leader Award in 2012 and was involved in many student organizations on campus, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Society of Women Engineers, Engineering Student Council, the Mathematical Association of America, Honors Constituency Council, Taiwanese Student Association and UTA Hosts. She also competed on the Mavs Badminton team and the Mavs Fencing team. She is a Black Belt 2nd degree in International Taekwondo, and served on the National Drill Team and Honor Guard of Taiwan.