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How Physics and Space Technologies are Shaping the Future of Neuroscience: PLOS Neuro Talks with SBMT President, Dr. Shouleh Nikzad

SUMMARY:  On the eve of the Society for Brain Mapping & Therapeutics (SBMT) Annual Congress, where PLOS is participating as an exhibitor and presenter, NASA-JPL Physicist and current SBMT President, Shouleh Nikzad, PhD, offers her vision of ongoing translational research into the application of space technologies to improve the diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of patients afflicted with neurological disorders. In an interview with PLOS Neuro Community Editor Emilie Reas, Nikzad cites how technologies that have been developed to detect faint signals from intergalactic medium could potentially be used to delineate cancer cells from normal cells as an example of this interdisciplinary synthesis. She discusses imaging technologies for multimodal probing, ultrasensitive sensors, robotic tools for surgery, and big data as further translational research areas represented by SBMT and its international membership of neuroscientists, physicians and engineers. Dr. Nikzad previews some of related talks and panel sessions taking place at the upcoming SBMT Annual Congress, including:

  •  Dr. Jakob van Zyl, Assoc. Director of Strategy and Mission Formulation at NASA-JPL, discussing the general relevance of NASA technologies to medicine and neuroscience
  • Dr. Ioana Cozmuta of NASA-Ames chairing a session on Microgravity and its applicability to Medical Innovations
  • Dr. Rafat Ansari of NASA-Glenn, co chairing a Military Medicine session
  • Dr. Jeff Sutton, Director of National Biomedical Research Institute co chairing a session that offers Neurological Considerations for Long-Duration Human Space Flight.

Other research areas representative of the SBMT membership to be covered at the March 6-8th gathering include: nanoneuromedicine, neurophotonics, deep brain stimulation, and dementia.

PLOS ONE Editorial Director Damian Pattinson will be on a (Friday March 7, 4 pm) panel titled, “Publication and Impact: Current and Future of Dissemination.  Other panelists for this session include: John Adler, Peter Binfield, and Allyson Rosen.

 —  Victoria Costello, PLOS Senior Social Media & Community Editor                                                                                                         

Q & A with SBMT President Shouleh Nikzad

 By Emilie Reas, PLOS Neuro Community Editor                                   

The Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics (SBMT) is at the forefront of interdisciplinary basic and clinical research efforts to better understand and treat neurological disorders. At this year’s annual SBMT Congress (held March 6-8, 2015 in Los Angeles, CA), scientists, physicians and engineers will showcase current advances that are helping to break barriers to translating scientific and technological developments into therapeutic tools. At the heart of the society’s mission is Dr. Shouleh Nikzad, SBMT President and Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute for Technology.

1. You have a unique blending of research interests. As a NASA physicist, you are also heavily involved in developing translational technologies for clinical neuroscience applications. Could you explain some of these interdisciplinary efforts, and more specifically, how physics is shaping the future of neuroscience?

As a physicist by training, who develops instruments and technologies for future NASA missions, I interact with “end users” e.g., Earth Scientists/Astrophysicists/Planetary scientists in order to devise ways to probe fundamental questions in these fields such as how has our universe evolved, how do galaxies/stars/planets form and evolve, and are there signs of life elsewhere in our solar system or in exoplanets. Through SBMT, similarly, I have been able to apply the same principle of working with the end users by facilitating interactions between health scientists and physical scientists.  There is great synergy between medical research and space technology research when it comes to the requirements for the tools and instruments.

Shouleh_MDL_Lab (3)For example, technologies that have been developed to detect faint signals from intergalactic medium can be used to delineate cancer cells from normal cells. Imaging technologies for multimodal probing, ultrasensitive sensors, robotic tools for surgery, and big data are some of the translational research areas that we are engaged in.

2. What inspired your career as a physicist? Were there any particularly influential experiences that helped guide your path?

I had always been interested in science and understanding how things work and why things are the way they are – physics related questions such as: why are the clouds in the sky, why does a magnet work on some metals and not others, why does my reflection move the same distance from the mirror surface as I do, why does acetone disappear when the bottle cap is off and where does it go? Why is the sun round? Where does the sugar go when it dissolves?  With great encouragement from my family and teachers, I believed I could be whatever I chose to be. When I was 13, I read a book about NASA and the Apollo program and then decided to get a PhD in physics and work for NASA. Many years later, I am doing just that.

3. You have a successful history of mentoring young scientists yourself. What advice can you offer early researchers just beginning their scientific careers?

Mentoring young scientists and budding scientists has been a privilege I enjoy.  While each field has its own set of special requirements, there are a few things that I find helpful across disciplines. There is no substitute for excellence, and that comes with staying focused, working hard, and choosing a field that interests and inspires you. As a scientist, one must dream, remain curious, ask probing questions and persevere to find answers, seek mentors, and not let anyone intimidate you.

4. In addition to your work at NASA, you also serve as President of the SBMT. What are the society’s primary aims, and what are some of the highlights that attendees can look forward to at the upcoming SBMT Congress?

I have been honored to serve as the SBMT President (2014-15). As our mission statement indicates: SBMT’s primary aim is to help patients afflicted with neurological disease or disorder through pushing the boundaries of knowledge, breaking boundaries of science/engineering/technology/art, and through affecting policy. SBMT and its annual congress is a unique forum that brings scientists and practitioners of vastly different fields together in a “think – tank” with the common goal stated in our mission. We promote bringing physical and health scientists together to solve medical problems through new approaches. I have said many times: extraordinary things happen when you bring people of different backgrounds together. This is particularly true when you bring extraordinary people together such as those we have gathered for this year’s SBMT Annual Congress. To give you a sneak peak: there will be reports of innovative ways to probe for early detection of Alzheimer’s Disease, in the Brain Bionic Session, you will see different technological approaches for providing sight function and memory function, in Nanoneurosurgery you will hear about the latest technological advances and technical approaches to perform intricate surgery.

I am very proud to report that this year, we have outstanding scientists from different parts of the world together with great support from local (CA) research institutions.

5. A major focus of the SBMT is fostering collaborative work across science, technology and medicine. Why is a multidisciplinary approach critical to advancing our understanding of brain function and the treatment of neurological disorders?

A multidisciplinary approach is key to solving any complex problem. By working across disciplines, we can leverage from research investment in different fields. By bringing together great minds that have been trained differently, we can develop more diverse and innovative approaches to these extremely important and complex problems of understanding the brain function and neurological disorders. It is my passion to bring space technology to advance medicine and I hope to achieve many successes through our endeavors.

You can read more about the SBMT and its upcoming congress in an invitation from Dr. Babak Kateb and Nathanial Gore.


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