Being a Public Scholar is about highlighting the need for interdisciplinary research to achieve realistic solutions. Collaborating with clinicians provides medical insight into the biological systems necessary for creating viable solutions. I believe as a public scholar I need to highlight the importance of this by creating a test bench that engages diverse researchers and clinicians in the design process. It also involves the task of effortlessly translating the technology in lay terms for practitioners and the general public to comprehend.
The human brain is believed to be the crowning achievement of evolution embodying 100 billion neuronal connections which outnumber the stars present in our Milky Way galaxy. Neurodegenerative diseases resulting from the deterioration of these neurons affect up to one billion people globally with no known cures or treatments to slow the disease progression. The high costs, complex usability and short lifespan of existing neural technologies limit their use not only in the Global North but also across the Global South where there is virtually no recorded information and basic treatments available for patients. Unlike past projects, our research brings together a multidisciplinary team of engineers and neuroscientists working to achieve a holistic solution through pre-clinical studies. We are working on a different fabrication and material strategy to create a stable and cost-effective neural interface that can be easily customized to the requirements of the neuroscience community for long-term studies. We plan to develop a nanocomposite material that is multifunctional with drug delivery capabilities and can be recycled and reused.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
To me, being a Public Scholar is about highlighting the need for interdisciplinary research to achieve realistic solutions. Just like our human body is a fine balance of several interdependent systems, designing a stable biomedical device today also requires that fine balance between the interdependent mechanical, electrical, chemical and material systems. Moreover, collaborating with clinicians provides medical insight into the biological systems necessary for creating viable solutions. I believe as a public scholar I need to highlight the importance of this by creating a test bench that engages diverse researchers and clinicians in the design process. It also involves the task of effortlessly translating the technology in lay terms for practitioners and the general public to comprehend.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
Typically, research clusters tend to work within their respective disciplines. The combination of technical jargon from respective disciplines and the lack of a wholesome understanding of interdependent design properties often prevents knowledge transfer and leaves the technology confined within a traditional Ph.D. thesis. For me, the PSI is an opportunity to go beyond my academic bubble and produce realistic solutions that are not confined to a laboratory setting. Not only will I get the opportunity to engage with clinicians and researchers across various disciplines but also develop the communication skills to explain my work in non-technical terms to practitioners and the public. The PSI is steadily paving the way towards a new generation of cross-disciplinary Ph.D. research that will hasten the process of innovative knowledge transfer to industrial practitioners and the public.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
I envision numerous career opportunities with my Ph.D. project in both academic and industry settings. While brainstorming novel design strategies in my project, the 3 main issues we constantly try to answer are: (i) biostability- “is our material composition and fabrication stable for long-term implantation”; (ii) “is our design user-friendly with existing surgical methods and recording equipment” and (iii) “is our concept cost-effective and can we recycle and reuse the material?”. This holds true for any biomedical implant application and networking through the PSI will open up many avenues including brain-machine interface and prosthetic think tanks, in the future for me to explore.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
The success of our project lies in actively collaborating with other disciplines to balance the design parameters and involving clinicians for medical and user-constraint insight. It also involves disseminating the proposed technology in layman terms to the public and industry to comprehend and implement. Quite often highly sophisticated neural technologies are designed by focusing on a single design parameter and lack user-friendliness. Thus, in my project, we actively collaborate with neuroscientist Dr. Lynn Raymond and her team to incorporate their requirements in the design process. Consequently, we become aware of the usability constraints in implementing the new technology in their pre-clinical Huntington’s disease studies. The PSI platform will also allow me to spread awareness of this technology to other clinicians, researchers, and the community where it can be potentially incorporated to other brain disease studies, brain-machine interfaces, prosthetics, and memory studies.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
As a child, I always found it hard sticking to the classic norm of studying. I enjoy learning from nature and creatively combining ideas from different fields to solve challenging problems. This led me to do my undergraduate studies in mechatronics engineering and later I received a graduate scholarship to work with Prof. Xuezeng Zhao at the Harbin Institute of Technology. He mentored me to work on a novel biomimetic wettability concept and I loved the freedom I got in exploring techniques from other domains and incorporating it in my thesis study. Towards the end, I got to meet Prof. Bharat Bhushan, a pioneer in tribology and biomimetic interface science, who encouraged me to jump fields and explore the west. Although several of my seniors felt, I was making a mistake changing specializations, I realized I wanted to combine my interdisciplinary knowledge skills and make meaningful contributions to our society, especially in the healthcare sector. I have always been interested in designing sustainable biomedical devices that will be accessible to all. Pursuing a Ph.D. in the Biomedical stream will help me channel my creativity and love for learning whilst also getting the opportunity to travel and explore the world.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
I was drawn to the unique Engineers in Scrubs (EiS) Program offered at UBC. It is a one-of-a-kind program in which graduate students get to work alongside clinicians and stakeholders to solve real-world healthcare problems. Moreover, my supervisor Prof. Peyman Servati is the director of STITCH (SmarT Innovations for Technology Connected Health) and CFET (Center for Flexible Electronics and Textiles) who encourages collaborative research studies with clinicians and industry partners to develop innovative healthcare solutions. This meant that I could pursue a non-traditional and interdisciplinary Ph.D. in which my proposed device would be tested in pre-clinical trials and not remain within the confines of a thesis study. I grabbed the opportunity presented to me and under the tutelage of my supervisor, I now get to actively collaborate with neuroscientist and director of DMCBH (Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health), Dr. Lynn Raymond to explore novel neural technologies.