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Dr. Rebecca Friesen
Dr. Rebecca Friesen serves as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University. | Image: Texas A&M Engineering/Steve Kuhlmann

The path to a discipline like mechanical engineering is not always direct. However, the twists and turns that define a journey can result in a fresh perspective, ready to bring new ideas to solve a problem. 

Dr. Rebecca Friesen joined the J. Mike Walker '66 Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University in January 2022. She serves as an assistant professor after earning her doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University — an unexpected turn from her undergraduate beginnings in physics. 

Her current research interests include surface haptic displays, haptic wearables for extended reality, human-machine interaction, tactile perception and the biomechanics of skin.

The following is an interview with Friesen, in which she shares how she came to join the mechanical engineering department, explains the research she is passionate about and the impact she hopes to have throughout her career.  

Q: What led to your decision to pursue mechanical engineering?

A: I actually took a very long and circuitous path to mechanical engineering. My undergraduate degree is in physics, where I loved learning math and exploring how the world fundamentally works, but I was not very excited about the research opportunities. I knew I wanted to keep learning and do hands-on work, so after college, I found a job as a medical school research lab technician. There, I worked with neuroscientists and biomedical engineers to develop brain-machine interfaces — i.e., technology that enables the control of robotic arms and machines with electrical signals measured directly from our neurons. This work involved a lot of brain surgery and design of mechanical systems that interface with the body. When I chose to go back to graduate school in mechanical engineering, I was excited to focus on the latter. 

Q: What brought you to Texas A&M University and the J. Mike Walker '66 Department of Mechanical Engineering?

A: Texas A&M has a huge pool of resources, from research facilities to potential collaborating professors to support grant writing and teaching, making it very attractive over smaller institutions. Texas also offers a young and growing population, and I'm so excited to work with all the enthusiastic and motivated students here who I'm already meeting in my first months on the job. 

Q: What is your primary area of research?

A: My research is in haptic interfaces, designing technology that applies touch sensations to a human user. Much of my past work focused on surface haptic devices, which can "display" the tactile sensations of textures, buttons, sliders and other features on a flat touchscreen surface. By manipulating friction forces on a fingertip as it touches a specialized screen, we can create a wide variety of programmable and dynamically changing haptic effects, similar to the rich videos and images that a touchscreen typically displays. I'm also researching the design and control of wearable haptic devices that apply sensations directly to your hand to provide haptic feedback for teleoperation or virtual and augmented reality applications. Besides actual actuation design, a lot of my research looks at where we need to distribute actuators on a person’s body and how we need to modulate their output in response to human movement to create realistic and compelling haptic experiences. 

Q: What about this research area most inspires you?

A: Early on during my post-college work with brain-controlled prosthetics, it became painfully clear that people are really bad at moving and controlling their bodies without any haptic (touch-related) feedback. Imagine trying to pick up a glass of water or write a letter while your hand is completely numb. Although often taken for granted, our sense of touch plays a critical role in our ability to move dexterously and interact with the world. Yet, as more of our work and communication moves to the digital realm — from phone touchscreens to teleoperation to the metaverse — haptic technology hasn't kept up with advances in video and audio capabilities. We're operating these interfaces in essentially a numbed state. Haptics research has a chance to transform that radically. 

Q: How might the general public be affected by this work?

A: In the past couple of years, hopefully, you have already seen haptic technology improvements on your personal phone. Commercial touchscreens are debuting increasingly sophisticated use of vibration motors to simulate button clicks and textured surfaces. Our research aims to provide new methods of actuation and control strategies that produce increasingly natural and satisfying sensations, whether you're touching a screen or a completely virtual object. 

Further out, I think many of us will see indirect benefits from haptic interfaces that enable remote operation and training simulators for skilled manipulation tasks, particularly in the medical field. For example, you might get surgery from a doctor trained in a medical simulator, receive a teleoperated medical exam from a remote medical specialist or simply want a satisfyingly reassuring hug from your robot nurse. 

Q: How do you hope to have a positive impact through your role?

A: I hope to cultivate students from a diverse range of backgrounds and life experiences in haptics research. They will determine the types of problems we solve and the populations we serve in the future. These days, lots of people use virtual interfaces for many tasks (from working to online shopping to socializing), and I think there's a huge need to consider how we can improve and leverage haptics to make these interactions more intuitive, useful and delightful for everyone. 

Q: What advice do you have for students interested in a similar career path?

A: Don't be afraid to try things out, get to know intimidating people doing cool things and be open to opportunities as they come your way. For the longest time, I had no idea what ultimate career I was headed toward. But I kept working alongside many brilliant colleagues who often directed me toward the next job or research opening. And while jumping from field to field isn't necessarily advisable, the cross-disciplinary experience can actually be a huge benefit in haptics research, which lies at the crossroads of engineering, human perception and design.