Alexandra Miller, center, with young German students at the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut Nürnberg

Alexandra Miller, PhD student in the Haptics and Medical Robotics Lab (HAMR), was awarded a scholarship from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. For the 14th consecutive year, Johns Hopkins University was named a top producer of Fulbright U.S. Student grants, with 21 scholarships awarded to JHU students and alumni for the 2023-24 application cycle. Miller is currently spending a semester in Germany at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremburg researching embodiment and integration of prosthetics. In this Q&A she shares her experiences overseas so far.

What inspired you to apply for this scholarship?

At HAMR we are blessed to have two other incredible Fulbright alumni, Neha Thomas ’22 and Autumn Hughes ’22, both of whom were extremely influential in my journey as a Fulbright Scholar. Seeing how the experience was life-changing for them, along with my own desire for international exchange, I decided to apply. I am grateful for their support and encouragement during the application process and also during my time here in Germany. My experience would be far different without them.

What is your research focused on and how did you choose where to study?

Because we use our hands to express emotions and connect socially, I am interested in exploring if the user’s experience during social touch situations is enhanced if they receive haptic feedback. Early on in my PhD, I read a paper entitled “Feel-Good Robotics Requirements on Touch for Embodiment in Assistive Robotics,“ by Philipp Beckerle, which helped shape my research interests and goals. His work focuses on improving the user experience in human-robot interaction, and I wanted to study the influence that affective touch (any touch that conveys emotional information versus functional information, i.e. hug, handshake, etc.) may have on an upper-limb prosthesis wearer’s experience. So I emailed him in June 2023 to ask whether he would host me during the Fulbright Grant. Thankfully, he gladly agreed!

“The Fulbright experience truly is life-changing. I have greater respect for students who study outside of their home country, have deeper awareness and appreciation for global organizations like the EU, and have a newfound urge to open the windows and get some fresh luft in, even in the middle of winter.” – Alexandra Miller   

What influenced you to pursue a graduate degree? What are your plans for after graduation?

I went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute as an undergraduate and majored in mechanical engineering, with a minor in theater. I had no clue that I wanted to go to graduate school until I attended a session about the master’s degree graduate program hosted by Johns Hopkins. Ultimately, my goal is to improve people’s quality of life. In engineering, I feel I can contribute best in designing and developing assistive devices. With that in mind, I found the work that Jeremy Brown does in the field of prosthetics to be very interesting. I’m grateful to be a part of his lab and the Hopkins community as a whole.

After graduation, I intend to work directly with end users of assistive devices. I believe assistive device design should involve the end user from the beginning.

What are some memorable or unique experiences you have had in Germany?

It is thanks to my very first robotics mentor, Chuck Trautwein, that I have had such incredible opportunities at Hopkins and Fulbright because he sparked my interest in engineering through the LEGO Tech camps he hosted and that I attended as a high school student in Garrett County, MD. I wanted to do the same for kids here in Germany. During a Fulbright event, we visited the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut Nürnberg (German-American Institute Nuremberg), an educational and cultural non-profit that offers language courses, a library, an information center, and other resources and programs aimed at cross-cultural understanding. I mentioned to them that I’m studying mechanical engineering and that I used to teach STEM lessons in schools back in my hometown. So we organized two STEM days to give kids the opportunity to be exposed to English while learning about STEM. We explored the concept of air resistance making rockets and parachutes. It was a hit among the kids and parents, and I had the best time launching rockets and dropping parachutes with the kids!

One special cultural experience I had was spending Christmas at the youth hostel in Ludwigstein Castle with my colleague and her family. Her brother is working at the youth hostel as part of his Bundesfreiwilligendiest (German Federal Volunteers Service), where people can volunteer in cultural, social, or ecological work. He and the other volunteers could invite their families to stay in the hostel, and it was a very special Christmas full of typical German traditions. We went hiking, enjoyed the sauna (the German way), and had all the classic dishes like bratwurst, red cabbage, and potato salad for Christmas dinner. It was an extremely special experience I will remember forever.

I also got the opportunity to attend the EU-NATO Seminar in Luxembourg, hosted by Fulbright Brussels, which included a visit to the U.S. Embassy and the European Court of Justice.

This has been a truly life-changing experience that I think more students should know about!