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Professor’s Multidisciplinary Approach To Brain Research

Published: December 18, 2013

From her early years of education, Shadnaz Asgari found that she has a keen interest in learning and teaching science and mathematics.

“I could hardly find anything more satisfying than the enjoyment I derived from understanding a difficult mathematical concept and then explaining it to the other classmates, so they can comprehend it as well,” said Asgari, an assistant professor in CSULB’s Department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science. “Teaching and research were very important to me, and by the time I was in high school, I knew that in the future I would like to take an academic career path.”

Fascinated by the world of mathematics and physics, she pursued her dream and in 2008 earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UCLA. Her postdoc work, however, steered her on another path, one she could never have anticipated.

“I had a chance to talk with a neurologist about brain’s functionality and it occurred to me that there is so much similarity between how an electronic circuit works and the way the neurons in the brain are firing and communicating with each other,” she said. “When it comes to the brain, there are still many things that we don’t know about. That fascinates me. There’s a lot of math going on here, and I am very much excited about it.”

That talk was a motivating factor for her to explore the application of engineering in medicine and soon thereafter she was accepted into a two-year program working in the UCLA Neurosurgery Neural Systems and Dynamics Laboratory which, at first, was a little daunting.

“It was all new to me because my formal education was in engineering and I had limited knowledge in physiology or biology,” she said. But even without any real medical background, Asgari was fascinated by the whole idea of working in such a setting, embracing the multi-disciplinary approach and learning medical terminology along the way, a necessary tool for her to succeed.

“I started meeting neurosurgeons, the ones considered gods of the medical field because they get the most complicated clinical cases and conduct surgery to fix someone’s brain,” she said. “To be able to relate to them, I had to learn their language and terminology, so I spent a lot of time self-studying.

“Engineers look at a problem from a different point of view than medical doctors and they talk different languages too,” she added. “If individuals can find a common language where they can sit and talk to each other, then the outcome will be much better. This can be a big obstacle because inherently we are not trained to talk in other languages.”

Quite often, it’s also twice the work. Project proposals need to be written with two descriptions—one for engineering colleagues and another for medical doctors.

“The two versions are sometimes quite different,” she said. “The first one is full of equations; the second one is full of terminologies and statements with references to medical journals or other studies that have been done using the same language. It can be a lot of work.”

Illustration of a brain
ILLUSTRATION BY J. HURTADO

In addition to working with neurosurgeon and nurses, sometimes the projects required Shadnaz to visit the Neuro-intensive care unit, where individuals with severe neurological disorders are connected to electronic devices that monitor the health status of the patients by measuring different physiological parameters.

“These clinical data are collected 24/7 and our job as engineer is to apply the engineering knowledge, develop new methods and algorithms to automatically and reliably process the data and find any patterns or changes that can help in diagnosis or treatment of the patient’s condition,” said Asgari.

“For example, if one can develop a data processing method which can reliably predict whether a specific patient is going to have another stroke in the next 20 minutes, the results would be of tremendous value to the doctors because then the doctors can take the necessary actions to prevent the stroke or at least minimize the level of brain damage.”

Since Asgari joined CSULB, she has been passing her knowledge along to students, looking to open an area of study that may have never occurred to them, just as it hadn’t to her. She is also continuing her research in the field of computational physiology.

“It is good that the students attain a broad knowledge of everything and learn about multidisciplinary approaches to solve the existing real world problems” she said. “I wanted to immerse myself in math and physics and that’s why I chose engineering. But as you grow up you see the world differently, and now I appreciate a person who has a broad perspective of things.

“I want my students to learn about multidisciplinary fields,” she added. “Transitioning from pure engineering to a multidisciplinary field such as biomedical engineering which can save lives was a great experience for me. My goal is familiarize my students with this exciting and growing field and if I can inspire even one single one of them to get involved in the field; I feel that I have got my reward.”