High School Researcher Noelle Stiles (Now Doctoral Candidate) Pursues Visionary Work

Most precollege programs offered by universities aim to give young students a glimpse into the fascinating world of science and engineering, in order to spark their interest in these subjects for further study. The ERC for Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems (BMES), at the University of Southern California (USC), found one precocious student in whom that spark became a flame. Noelle Stiles, then an 11th-grader at Villa Park High School, began working with BMES Prof. Armand R. Tanguay, Jr., in Fall 2003 after she was introduced to him at a science fair. Initially, Tanguay mentored her science fair project, and then accepted her as a full member of his Optical Materials and Devices Laboratory at USC when it became apparent that she was deeply committed to her research. She was and still is the only high school student ever to become a full member of the lab.

At the outset, all of Noelle's research work was on a volunteer basis, under the auspices of various science fairs. When she became a member of Tanguay's research group, she also became affiliated with the BMES ERC and began participating in weekly meetings of the Retinal Prosthesis Research Group at the USC Keck School of Medicine. She attended an FDA surgical trial of a retinal prosthetic microelectrode array (implanted by BMES Director Dr. Mark Humayun), and participated intensively in the successful surgical implantation of the first intraocular camera in a dog's eye in July 2004.

In the 2004 Orange County Science & Engineering Fair, Noelle’s project, "Intraocular Camera for Retinal Prostheses: Restoring Vision to the Blind," took the Grand Sweepstakes Award, Senior Division (9-12) (the top prize of the entire Fair); First Place, Physiology, Senior Division (9-12); and First Place, Center for Inquiry West (an organization founded by Carl Sagan and Murray Gell Mann), for the best project demonstrating critical thinking. That same year Noelle was named a semifinalist in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology at the national level. As such, she was recognized as one of an elite 300 math, science, and engineering students in the entire country.

Entering USC as an undergraduate, Noelle continued her research within Dr. Tanguay's research group and the BMES ERC on the visual psychophysics and optical systems design criteria applicable to both intraocular and extraocular camera designs for retinal prosthetic devices. Less than three years after discovering her passion for biomedical research as a high school junior, this remarkable young student was routinely presenting her research at professional conferences, where she was accepted as a peer.

At present, Noelle is a doctoral student in the computation and neural systems (CNS) program at Caltech. Her graduate research focuses on the design and evaluation of sensory substitution devices for rehabilitation of the blind—a direct progression from her science fair project a decade ago that was inspired by her early association with the BMES ERC.