On January 13, 2012, Iowa State alumnus Chad Bouton reached a milestone in his engineering career: 15 years at Battelle, the world’s largest, independent cross-disciplinary research and development organization. During those 15 years, Bouton has made considerable contributions to breakthrough research in the medical industry. From developing neural decoding methods that have allowed quadriplegic individuals to control wheelchairs with a brain implant, to creating new signal processing methods for cancer detection, the number of notable accomplishments Bouton has acquired is an impressive feat for such a young engineer.
Early research experience influences career
Bouton began his engineering path at Iowa State in the late 1980s, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1993. During that time, he held a summer job working on a project with Ken McConnell, Iowa State professor emeritus, which ended up changing Bouton’s career direction.
The project was commissioned shortly after significant ice build-up on power lines and violent winds caused 99 Iowa towers to collapse. In response, McConnell led a project to study this effect, often called galloping, by putting sensors on the power lines. In need of someone skilled in electronics, McConnell hired Bouton for the summer.
After the summer job and hours of persistent persuasion by McConnell, Bouton was convinced to apply for graduate school to pursue his interest in robotics. Aware of the enormous potential Bouton had, McConnell insisted that he complete his graduate work in the department McConnell was working in: engineering mechanics. Despite the challenging transition from one engineering discipline to another, Bouton says he never regretted it.
“Ken was an amazing person to work with, and because of him my experience as a graduate student was amazing as well,” explains Bouton. “He taught me how to look at a problem and boil it down to its simplest form to truly understand it. I still use the lessons he taught me to this day here at Battelle and try to pass them along to other staff members coming up through the ranks.”
With McConnell’s guidance and inspiration, Bouton received his master’s in engineering mechanics in 1996 along with a Research Excellence Award given only to the top 10 percent of all PhD and MS students.
Recognition for remarkable work
After receiving his master’s, Bouton received a job offer at Battelle. At the time, he was contemplating pursuing a doctorate but decided he needed a few years of real world experience first. He accepted the offer with the intention of returning for his PhD and taking advantage of Battelle’s program that pays a good portion of educational expenses. But as time went on, Bouton’s plan continued to be put on hold.
“Every year at Battelle, something new and exciting has come to my door, and I have been constantly engaged in R&D programs the entire 15 years. I have been very fortunate, but a PhD is still on my to-do list,” he says.
Bouton has held a variety of positions with the organization. In 1997, he began as a researcher in Integrated Product Development. Promotions came quickly for Bouton as he continued to show excellent skill in the field, moving to research scientist in 1999, principal research scientist in 2002, and senior research scientist in 2006.
In 2010, he was promoted to his current position of research leader in Global Health And Life Sciences. In this role, Bouton leads design and research teams; acts as a principal investigator to devise research plans and strategies; mentors junior staff members; assists in marketing and business strategies; and fosters good relationships with clients.
As a result of his innovative work, Bouton holds 67 patents worldwide, along with several distinguishing awards for the large variety of projects he’s been involved with. In 2004, he received his first Battelle Outstanding Technical Achievement Award, and in 2006 Medrad, Inc., recognized him with the Technical Excellence and Leadership Award.
He has also earned two R&D 100 Awards. The first came in 2000 for developing a cancer detection system that allows surgeons to pinpoint cancerous tissue more quickly and accurately during surgery. Seven years later, he received his second R&D 100 Award as well as an R&D Editor’s Choice Award for his contributions to a brain implant technology for paralyzed patients.
A major highlight of Bouton’s career, the research and innovation that sparked from the brain implant system ultimately led to several of Bouton’s most highly esteemed accomplishments: being named Battelle Inventor of the Year and recognized by the US Congress in 2010; and earning Battelle’s Distinguished Inventor Award and Tech-Columbus Inventor of the Year Semi-Finalist, as well as being selected by the National Academy of Engineering to attend Frontiers of Engineering in 2011.
“With regards to the Battelle Inventor of the Year Award, typically winners are folks that have had long careers in the industry so I was extremely shocked and particularly fortunate to be chosen so early in my career,” Bouton admits.
Expanding possibilities for paraplegic individuals
Bouton’s work on the brain implant system was made possible by research done at Brown University. The work at Brown resulted in a spin-off company called Cyberkinetics, which was interested in putting a brain implant into the motor cortex of human volunteers for a clinical study. When researchers realized their neural decoding methods needed improvement, they came to Battelle for their expertise, leading them to Bouton.
“I happened to have the right background when Cyberkinetics came asking for help,” explains Bouton. “They were looking for someone with control theory and signal processing expertise, two areas I studied at Iowa State.”
The study was conducted by inserting a tiny brain implant approximately 4×4 millimeters with 96 miniscule electrodes into the motor cortex, a narrow region of the brain right above the ear on each side of one’s head that controls the opposite side of the body. The implant allowed researchers to see how the neurons in the brain were firing as they imagined different arm and hand movements.
With the implant inserted into the brain of paraplegic study participants who had lost use of their limbs and torso, Bouton spent time demonstrating different movements, attempting to excite neurons in the motor cortex, and then having them try to imagine the movements without assistance. With new and improved methods, patients began to improve their ability to control a cursor on a screen, all through their thoughts alone.
Furthering his research in neural decoding, Bouton developed new techniques and modified old ones, such as those used for his cancer detection research. By altering some of the algorithms he used in his previous research he discovered similarities between the two processes.
“It turns out both radiation and neurons firing in the brain are closely related random processes. With the data we collected, I found consistent patterns in the different movements the patients were imagining,” Bouton explains. “This led to being able to detect when the participants were imagining movements of their shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, and fingers.”
Within the first year of the study, a few participants began getting skilled in using the neural decoding system and gained attention from the media. When 60 Minutes got wind of the research in 2008, the program invited the research team as well as participant Cathy Hutchinson to present their work on national television. The team took a chance by letting Hutchinson try, for the first time, to control a wheelchair with her mind using Bouton’s decoding methods. They had one chance, and they succeeded.
Bouton’s work with the neural decoding system led to other research projects, including studies with ALS patients, advancing electrocorticography (ECoG) methods, and analyzing seizures and pre-seizure activity in epileptic patients. Although many of the studies have been completed or are a work-in-progress, Bouton has high hopes for the technology.
“Neurotechnology is at the exciting point where cardiac technology was a few decades ago,” Bouton says. “Truth is, the brain is even more complex than the heart, but we are starting to show progress and demonstrate what is really possible as the field matures.”
Throughout his exciting work in the medical device and neurotechnology fields, along with his years of experience and honorable recognitions, Bouton says he’s learned important lessons like understanding the value of collaboration.
At Battelle, Bouton is always looking for ways to collaborate with new clients, groups, and other institutions, something he learned while attending Iowa State. He says it’s important to practice these skills as a young engineer because they will make the transition into industry much easier.
“Students and young professionals should develop relationships with as many people as they can because that may open doors or lead to a collaboration down the road,” urges Bouton. “In many cases, what makes projects or collaborations work (or not) are the relationships.”
Striving to live up to his advice, Bouton continues to work with others on medical innovations that may someday change the world while collaborating on a daily basis at work and at home with his wife Heidi, a ‘93 ISU alumna, to raise their son, Will, and daughter, Abby.
Bouton says, “My wife has always supported my interests and career, and is an incredible teacher and mother to our kids – with amazing intuition! Will and Abby are always curious about what I do at work and have so many interests and talents – we are so thankful and I can’t wait to see where their career paths go.”