April 2021 - BME Blaze: Charles Rodenkirch

Apr 01 2021

In this monthly spotlight, get to know the alumni and students of Columbia's Department of Biomedical Engineering. Read what our BME folks are up to, from our labs' latest research, to our students' plans for the future, to our teams' innovations, start-ups and other career successes.

We enjoyed catching up with Columbia BME graduate alumnus Charles Rodenkirch (MS '16; PhD '19), as he told us about his experience as a graduate Columbia BME student, his current role as Founder & President of startup Sharper Sense, and his helpful advice to future BME students. Read below to get to know Charlie!

 

Charles Rodenkirch, PhD

  • PhD, Biomedical Engineering, 2019, Columbia University
  • MS, Biomedical Engineering, 2016, Columbia University
  • BS, Biomedical Engineering, 2014, University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

Where are you from?

I’m originally from Wisconsin and grew up in the city of Fond du Lac. After high school, I moved to Madison to complete my undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which, at the time, felt like moving to a “big city.” Four years later, in 2014, I learned what a big city really was when I moved out to New York to start graduate school at Columbia University.

 

What drew you to the field of Biomedical Engineering?

I’m a third-generation engineer, with my father and grandfather being civil and mechanical engineers, respectively. I’ve always had a strong interest in understanding how and why things work, which I think is a common trait among engineers. I was born in the early ‘90s, and therefore was fortunate to be the first generation of kids that had access to computers from a young age. Getting to witness the rapid improvements in personal computers during that time and the subsequent rise of smartphones left me forever fascinated by electronics. When I started my undergraduate degree at UW-Madison, I became interested in research that applied the latest advancements in electronics and computer science to medical research to create rapid advancement in biomedical technology. I wanted to be part of this exciting work which led me to choose biomedical engineering as my major. This choice of field led to my exposure to neuroscience and my eventual choice to pursue research and development of brain-computer interfaces.

 

What is your current role?

I am currently working full-time as CEO of Sharper Sense, a startup I founded with Professor Qi Wang to commercialize neuromodulation-based techniques of improving perceptual ability developed during my doctoral research in his lab. This technology has great potential to treat clinical causes of impaired sensory processing as well as enhance the performance and safety of athletes or workers in hazardous professions. Columbia has been greatly supportive of both my academic research as well as my efforts to launch a startup. During my last semester as a student, I was able to participate in the Columbia Biomedical Accelerator (BiomedX). Further, Sharper Sense’s office space is currently located in the Columbia Startup Lab. Sharper Sense is preparing to conduct our first pilot clinical studies this summer and the company was also recently honored to be selected for the inaugural cohort of the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator.

 

Why did you choose Columbia BME?

I did a lot of research when considering graduate schools and, at the end, Columbia University was the clear winner. I was passionate about conducting brain-computer interface research, so the opportunity to work with Professor Qi Wang in his Neural Engineering Lab was a perfect fit. Further, Columbia University has world-class neuroscience and engineering communities, which I knew would provide me the opportunity to learn from and work with leading experts in their fields. Finally, of course, I was also excited at the chance to live in the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world! 

 

What were some of your favorite projects/memories from the program?

The BME department does a great job of producing fun events for their students. I have fond memories of department-sponsored trips to the US Tennis Open, boat cruises around Manhattan, holiday parties, and Islanders hockey games. I was also fortunate enough to be able to have my thesis defense in person prior to the pandemic, and really enjoyed that opportunity to present my research and then celebrate with my friends and family. 

 

What were your proudest moments at Columbia?

I’m quite proud of the research I conducted with Professor Qi Wang and Brian Schriver that was published in Nature Neuroscience. Receiving confirmation that our article was finally accepted after years of research and months of reviews was certainly a high point I’ll long remember. The strong scientific progress we made in that publication led to the development of performance-enhancing neuromodulation technology, for which I helped Columbia Technology Ventures write multiple patent applications on which I am proud to have my name. I was also honored to be the first doctoral student to graduate from Professor Qi Wang’s lab. The chance to join a brand-new lab and be part of the team helping it to grow into a research powerhouse was definitely a rewarding experience.

 

What are your thoughts on the strength of Columbia BME's alumni network and how has that influenced your career path?

The Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) has a wonderful network of alumni and friends who are always looking to help current students. During my time at Columbia, getting the opportunity to meet recent alumni at events hosted by the Columbia Engineering Young Alumni Association (CEYA) and the Columbia Engineering Alumni Association (CEAA) helped me learn more about potential careers. As an alumnus, I’ve joined the Columbia University Club of New York and really enjoy their events. As a startup founder, being a part of the Columbia alumni network has been hugely helpful in connecting with potential investors, partners, and customers.

 

Any words of wisdom or tips for prospective BME students?

I would strongly recommend to any Columbia student to make sure they take the time to enjoy New York and appreciate all the great food, culture, sports, and entertainment the city has to offer. I’d also recommend you try out as many of Columbia’s student clubs as you’re able to; college is a great time to try new hobbies and force yourself out of your comfort zone. You never know what activity might become your future passion or lead you to meet your next best friend. On that note, take the time to talk to your classmates and make new friends while you’re here. Columbia is filled with such an interesting and diverse student body, and there’s as much to be learned from your peers as from the textbooks. For biomedical engineering students specifically, I think one of the most important things right now is that you take the time to learn the fundamentals of computer science. Being able to readily use computers to automate your research, construct complex models, conduct advanced statistical analysis, and implement machine learning techniques will help you regardless of what field you ultimately specialize in. I would also recommend starting the degree with an open mind and taking classes that span the different specializations you think might interest you. Then, once you find the field of work or research that genuinely excites you, focus your coursework and research experiences around that field, so by the time you graduate, you’re an expert in it.

 

What are you excited about?

One of the things I love most about the field I work in, neural engineering, is that I find it so exciting, with the brain representing one of the last remaining unknown frontiers. In the last decade, the rapid advancement and miniaturization of electronics has provided a wealth of tools to the neuroscience community that now allow for amazing research to be conducted that would have been impossible just a few years prior. Much how rapid advancements in sailing and navigation tools allowed for the exploration of the world and ushered in the age of discovery, I believe the latest neuroscience tools being developed will allow us to uncover unbelievable detail as to how the brain works, allowing us to develop electroceutical technology that can provide targeted and personalized treatments and usher in a new age of health.

  

I am currently working full-time as CEO of Sharper Sense, a startup I founded with Professor Qi Wang to commercialize neuromodulation-based techniques of improving perceptual ability developed during my doctoral research in his lab. This technology has great potential to treat clinical causes of impaired sensory processing as well as enhance the performance and safety of athletes or workers in hazardous professions. Columbia has been greatly supportive of both my academic research as well as my efforts to launch a startup.

Charles Rodenkirch, PhD
MS '16, PhD '19, Columbia BME | Founder & President, Sharper Sense

Images (clockwise from top left):

1. Charles Rodenkirch and his mentor Professor Qi Wang

2. Winter at Columbia University

3. Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) Trip to an NY Islander’s NHL Game

4. Charles Rodenkirch and his parents at his Columbia University graduation ceremony

5. Columbia University Biomedical Engineering (BME) Holiday Party

6. Columbia University Engineering Graduate Student Council (EGSC) Spring Boat Cruise

  

COLUMBIA BME ACADEMICS