Pasta + red = learning: How this NSF grant recipient taught herself to succeed with dyslexia

Biomedical engineering doctoral student Brooke Danielsson
Biomedical engineering doctoral student Brooke Danielsson has been selected for the prestigious 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Danielsson)

By Leila Ugincius
University Public Affairs


Dyslexia is caused by a structural abnormality in the brain that causes the right hemisphere to be larger than the left. People with dyslexia learn best through hands-on techniques. With the right tools, they can overcome learning obstacles.

But Brooke Danielsson didn’t understand any of that when, as a child, she found out she has dyslexia. And she didn’t have a tutor or access to an individualized education program to help her learn how to work around the disability. So she taught herself. Her technique has been a “work in progress” ever since.

“I really respond well to colors, smells and textures,” she said. “How I study is very, very nontraditional.”

Danielsson’s unconventional methods are paying off. Now a doctoral student studying biomedical engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, Danielsson has been selected for the prestigious 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The three-year fellowship comes with a $138,000 award to support Danielsson’s research on how the nucleus in endothelial cells — cells that line the interior of blood vessels — responds to force.

Danielsson’s work will contribute to a better understanding of cardiovascular diseases on the cellular level. She is studying under Daniel E. Conway, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering.

“I really like how the NSF-GRF selects individuals off of intellectual merit and their broader impacts, in addition to their research work,” she said.

But Danielsson would not have had a chance to even apply for the fellowship if one academic adviser early on had his way.

“When I was a freshman in college [at the New York Institute of Technology], I heard about biomedical engineering at my freshman orientation,” she said. “But my academic adviser told me that it probably wasn't a good idea because of my learning differences.”

Everyone else she met, however, boosted her academic confidence, she said.

“My professors at NYIT were the ones who really encouraged me to go into engineering and academia for a Ph.D.,” she said. “They were so helpful — that's what I want to do for other students.”

Colors, smells and textures

In addition to pursuing a doctoral degree, Danielsson is now sharing her self-taught, nontraditional studying tools with young students. Dubbed “EPIC” for Engineering Practices in Color, the program is geared toward middle school children facing learning challenges.

“Everyone absorbs and processes information in different ways and my goal is to teach engineering with a colorful approach while providing support for different learning styles,” Danielsson said. “I believe that incorporating a systematic curriculum with aids such as colors, textures, smells and visuals will help in the perceiving and encoding of STEM material.”

Danielsson is literal about her “colorful approach.” All her methods are based on sensory techniques.

“I learn best by color association,” she said. “When I have to think back to something or when I need to try to solve a math problem, writing in different colors helps with interpreting the material. … I know there are studies out there where when you smell certain things, when you're studying certain subjects, your brain opens different pathways in order to better understand the material. So then when you smell those smells again, it helps your synapses re-form the connections in the brain again to remember what you were learning.”

Since red is usually associated with an exit or stop — like a stop sign or an exit sign — Danielsson always uses red for something that either needs to be subtracted, is negatively charged or is a protein exiting a pathway.

“At EPIC, let’s say we're doing an activity with electrical engineering and they need to remove something before they add something else,” she said. “All of that [instruction] will always be done in the color red. And then with things that we are adding, it’s obviously green, ’cause they're making it positive.”

For a lesson on polymers, she uses pasta.

“Polymers do different things based [on] their linkages,” she said. “So when I was teaching a biomaterial activity to the students last week, I was using pasta to demonstrate polymer behavior in nature. Polymer strands that are not cross-linked are able to slide all over each other, which makes the material property a liquid. But when you leave pasta in the colander for a while and don't touch it and don't put water over it, it becomes hard because the polymers become cross-linked.

“I tried to display this with the pasta for them to conceptually understand the molecular behavior in an easy way. I was using the sense of touch as I was teaching the science behind it.”

Promoting engineering

This academic year, Danielsson has been sharing her EPIC program with seventh and eighth graders at The Georgetown School in Hanover County.

“The students really enjoy ‘VCU Day,’” Brian Ford, the school’s principal, said of Danielsson’s monthly visits. “They get to create things with their hands and learn about engineering in the process. The teachers have really enjoyed it, too. It’s really a good feeling to see the students excited about learning.

“One of Brooke’s goals for bringing this program to a middle school is to help promote engineering as a possible career path for the students, because she said that it wasn’t something she envisioned for herself early on.”

When interviewing at Ph.D. programs last year, Danielsson was dismayed to find a lack of students with documented learning disabilities in engineering schools. She cited an NSF report that found that only 2% of individuals with cognitive learning disabilities are enrolled in engineering Ph.D. programs.

“With 34% of school-aged children in the U.S. affected [by] a learning disability, it is important for the STEM community to stop associating learning disabilities with intelligence and see [these children] as the holders of providing different perspectives and creative solutions to solving problems in the field,” Danielsson said.

“STEM is growing at an exponential rate and we need to change the accessibility to the field, while not devaluing its intricacy. With EPIC, I hope to remove the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to learning and update the educational practices of STEM, starting on a small scale, while celebrating the diversity of learning.”