Caroline Lawrence's deep social conscience and her desire to know what makes us fully human have guided her studies at Franklin & Marshall. Several faculty members praise her for her outstanding research in five distinct disciplines—computer science, psychology, English literature, philosophy and biology. She said that the liberal arts approach prepared her well for a summer 2017 internship at IBM and a unique challenge—finding a way to enable a fully conscious but immobilized person to communicate.
Lawrence is this year's recipient of the Williamson Medal, the College's most prestigious award for student achievement. She received the medal recognizing her contributions as a scholar and a student leader at F&M's May 12 Commencement, as she graduated summa cum laudewith a double major in cognitive science and government and honors in cognitive science.
During her internship at IBM, Lawrence studied interfaces of the human brain and computers. She developed software and user interfaces to help patients who have brain function but lack of full motor control—a condition known as locked-in syndrome—to communicate with others.
"I used my liberal arts background extensively in my research," Lawrence said. "ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, slowly and progressively takes away motor control. With no known cure, patients resign themselves to losing the ability to perform basic functions on their own, even walking, eating and speaking. I and the rest of the research team at IBM were working to create a brain-computer interface to facilitate communication. We had to understand the physiological facts of the disease and the intricacies of neuroimaging on the chosen modality. We also had to consider economic feasibility for the affected family, the efficiency of the computer code, and the psychological realities for these patients and their families. Considering all of those factors was the only realistic way to promote independence even as the disease progressed.
"So I worked all summer on electroencephalography (EEG) as the solution," she continued. "Wireless EEG headsets are becoming more affordable and if we could use the algorithm and the computer software to understand brain waves, we could provide the communication method these patients needed. It was a long and sometimes frustrating process of trial and error, and that's something my IBM counterparts constantly reminded me of—that science and technology research is filled with failure, that you have to stay determined and investigate all the alternatives."
Finally, in the last week of her internship, she succeeded. "The prototype finally worked," she remembered. "The algorithm was recognizing the brain waves and the thought patterns. All of the software was performing correctly. It was a euphoric moment for me."
That commitment to research is evident in the fact that IBM researchers continue to develop and refine the interface for public rollout. Meanwhile, Lawrence's research continued through her independent research and honors thesis, as she examined states of consciousness and EEG. She acquired a wireless EEG headset and directed a study this spring investigating the EEG profile of the conscious state of flow. She intends to become an attorney, focusing on alternative dispute resolution in the field of intellectual property, especially biotechnology, and she was accepted into some of the country’s most prestigious law schools, including Stanford, Duke, Yale, California-Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia, UCLA, Cornell, NYU and Penn. She will attend Yale, where she will research implications of neuroscience for the law.
Lawrence, a native of Ellicott City, Md., is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has earned the College’s Edward S. Reed Prize in Scientific and Philosophical Studies of Mind and the George W. Wagner and Richard Krouse '68 prizes in government. She has been a Hackman Scholar and a Marshall Fellow, as well as a tutor in the Writing Center and a member of the Act for Humanity Foundation. She has served on the faculty’s Committee on Fair Practices and the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees. She was a discussion leader during F&M’s campuswide Day of Dialogue in October 2016.
She said she always was interested in a small liberal arts college with an excellent program in cognitive science, and Franklin & Marshall was the natural choice. But her arrival on campus was delayed.
"Just before I was ready to come to F&M, my mom got quite sick and it just wasn't a good time for me to leave home," she said. "I wound up studying for a semester in Baltimore. When I got here in January, I worried that I would be on the outside looking in, that everyone would already be so established because of the four months they had shared. But everyone was so supportive, welcoming and encouraging from the moment I arrived that I immediately felt I was part of the first-year class, indeed the F&M family. That feeling has continued right up to today—my classmates, the faculty and staff, everyone here uplifts me and inspires me. This is a very special place."