Beatriz Gonçalves is a MIT Portugal Program Engineering Design and Advanced Manufacturing PhD Student at the University of Minho who spent 12 months at MIT developing her research which consists of a neuroscience medical device for patients with Parkinson disease. Beatriz has a Master Degree in Biomedical Engineering and started working on this specific project in 2012 during a two years’ research grant at Algoritmi Center. Currently she is pursuing her research under her MIT Portugal PhD supervised by Professor José Correia, Full Professor at the School of Engineering of the University of Minho and researcher at the CMEMS-UMinho.
Can you talk us about the main core of your research and the biomedical device that you are working on? What is it for?
The main goal of my PhD research is to design and manufacture a novel implantable device for brain mapping and modulation. The brain circuits involved in several brain diseases and disorders are still unknown. Therefore, there is the need to develop new solutions capable of interfacing with brain networks at a cellular level to improve knowledge and to address neuroscience challenges. Ultimately, these medical tools will catalyse new treatments for brain disorders and diseases such as Parkinson, Alzheimer, depression, etc.
Traditionally, interfacing with brain tissue relied on electrical current, due to electrical inherent activity of the brain cells. Optogenetics is a recent technique that has revolutionized scientists' ability to remotely control neurons by promoting excitation or inhibition from targeted cells sensitive to light. Optogenetic tools (optrodes) have shown cell-type neuromodulation with unique spatial resolution by delivering light on a cellular-scale with millisecond precision. This technology helps to reveal which specific neurons/circuits are involved with normal or pathological brain functions. In the interest of developing new tools for deeper understanding of the human brain and finding new treatments for brain disorders and diseases, my PhD project proposes the development of an optrode microsystem capable of optical stimulation and simultaneous electrical recording of neural circuits, with fully integrated microelectronics.
What are the main challenges that you are facing in Portugal to develop your work?
I think the main challenge in Portugal is the difficulty that researchers face to gather resources. I frequently see myself in situations where I need to wait several weeks to get lab material, due to required paperwork. At MIT, this process usually takes less than a week, allowing the work to get done much faster.
You spent 12 months at MIT under your PhD, what were you able to achieve during this time?
My stay at MIT was wonderful at several levels. At the Boyden lab-MIT, I had the opportunity to work with all the expected steps to develop, characterize and validate a neural implantable interface for invasive recordings of electrical brain activity. In term of research, it was truly a fruitful experience.
Also, it was amazing to get the chance to live one year at Boston, where so many good universities, like MIT and Harvard, hospitals and biomedical related companies are located. I had the opportunity to meet and to talk with a lot of different and relevant people in their fields. I met so many skilful and talented people that helped me improve both my soft and hard skills.
But all in all, this experience at MIT would not be the same without the Portuguese group of people we had there. Thank you, guys, for the friendship, the laughs, the road trips, the free food, it was all worth it!
Finally, the opportunity to travel and see so many new and diverse places in the USA.
Is the reality of working there different from here? How?
As I stated before, the pace of the work there is faster. Because of that, we have the opportunity to fail more, learn more, and ultimately accomplish more as researchers. While working there, I felt that failing is in fact a necessary step to the success of any project. In Portugal, as everything happens slower, I feel that we have less margin for errors during the PhD.
You were supervised by Professor Edward Boyden, professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at the MIT Media Lab. How was this opportunity?
The opportunity to work with Professor Boyden was unique, not only because I was working at MIT, but also because I met him. He taught me a lot, we exchange many ideas, but mostly he showed me the importance of skills like the big-picture thinking, i.e., to think and plan strategically all the work, so when finished we can actually contribute to science and get biological questions answered with focus. My first meeting with Ed, he kept asking me: “How do you want to change the world?”. This will definitely be a question that I will ask myself before starting a new project.
Do you consider that this experience at MIT was relevant for your research?
Absolutely. I focused my work there on performing in vivo recording experiments to extract relevant biological data and mapping a specific brain area. I tried to concentrate efforts to do a task there that it would be more difficult for me to do in my work lab in Portugal. But overall, I had the opportunity to work in the whole process of designing and manufacturing an implantable device for electrical recording of brain activity.
In terms of personal experience, did you enjoy living in Boston and staying at the MIT campus?
I really did. Boston and Cambridge are small cities with great and diverse cultural offers. Also, the entrepreneurial spirit of both cities is present all year. Seminars, conferences and networking events for all kind of scientific topics are frequent, bringing together academics, start-ups and big companies. Furthermore, there are several competition events aiming to launch ideas and technologies into leading companies (e.g. MIT $100K). Boston is a wonderful city to bring an idea to life!
The weather is the most challenging aspect of the city, where harsh winters are expected. Nevertheless, and specially at MIT, roads and sidewalks are kept clean.
Do you have any tips for future students?
The main difficulty I got (and continue to see in other students) was to find affordable housing. I recommend everyone to look into MIT on-campus housing (graduate residences), because it is a really simple process and you can apply at any time of the year. The prices are competitive comparing to off-campus housing, and you can fully experience the MIT multiculturalism and lifestyle experience. For those like me who lived on MIT campus, a really useful utility is the MIT shuttles, available to all members of the MIT community, that provide free safe rides within campus, groceries shops and nearby relevant spots in Boston. As a person with locomotion issues, this service was a great help.
Regarding the MIT Portugal Program, what were the main reasons for you to choose this Program and specifically the EDAM Doctoral program?
My main motivation to have applied to the MIT Portugal program was the possibility to do part of my research in a group at MIT. Specifically, I´ve chosen the EDAM doctoral program because of its emphasis on the development of high-level research in engineering systems, based on advanced manufacturing and competitive product designs. I wanted to be able to develop a new medical tool based on these principles. Therefore, EDAM seemed like a good match for the accomplishment of such complex implantable device, combining research and development processes that can culminate in a new engineering design and manufacturing paradigm for the neuroscience area of research.
What are in your perspective, the main benefits of this Program?
Definitely, the opportunity to go to MIT and do research there.
Plans for your future?
I truly like the research area I am currently working on, and therefore, for the future, I am planning on continuing to work and further develop engineered tools for neuroscience. In the short term, this plan might be on an academic context. Further on, I am looking for the possibility to turn my research and knowledge into a competitive business idea.