This Friday the JSC’s summer students arrived, which meant that I was able to tag along for their introductory tour of the Jülich Föreschungszentrum. We cycled around the campus with our guide, Irina Tihaa, a PhD student studying “neuroelectronics”. I wanted to hear a bit more about her field, so she kindly agreed to sit down with me after the tour for a small interview! So what is her group actually studying?
“In our institute we are mainly doing electronics for the brain. This is mostly fundamental research; we look at which kinds of materials and electronics we can use, how can we listen to the brain and understand the signals it is sending, and how can we communicate with the brain, via these electronics. First of all, we need to work on the different electronics, but we also need to understand the language of the brain. I’m working mostly on the latter.”
And what kind “medium” is this communication done across? What kind of data is involved?
“A typical example would be that we take a chip, with lots of electrical channels. We cultivate our cells on top. Neuronal cells communicate via electrical signals, so then we can measure the voltage difference across our chip. I also have a lot of optical data. You can introduce fluorescent sensors into the sample, which are activated by light and also emit light. From this you get a lot of video data, because you’re measuring the difference of the intensity.”
Quite an inter-disciplinary field! I asked Irina about the kinds of scientists she works with during a typical week
“In my institute we are mostly physics actually, because we’re a bio-physics institute located in a physics department. We have some biologists, we have some nanotechnologists, we have quite a lot of chemists… Bio-medical engineers… Some medics also, and electrical engineers of course. And then software developers! Almost all of our electronics is institute-made, which means we need software developers and a lot of electrical engineers to construct it. When it comes to analysing the data, because neuronal communication is quite complex, we need complex algorithms. I don’t have the background for this, so I also talk to people from the computational neuroscience institute, who have the expertise to create these algorithms for analysing neuronal signals.”
And these kinds of interactions are not at all uncommon at the FZJ. During our tour, every stop reminded me why research facilities with different institutes and people from different fields are so important. Nuclear research means that there is a fire station and highly trained guard dogs on campus. Those dogs also help us forgetful scientists by tracking lost keys when needed! Medical engineers are helping the biology department to do MRI scans of live plants. And as it turns out, Irina’s institute, like mine, also has a graphene connection! Some of the chips she and her team have been building have used graphene. As a carbon-based material, she told me it is chemically quite suitable for our carbon-based bodies. But how does one start studying a field like “neuroelectric interfaces”? It’s hardly something that you come across during your high school or bachelor studies. I was very curious to hear about Irina’s path to Jülich.
“Originally I’m from Kazakhstan, but I’ve been living here in Germany for long time, over 20 years. I was always impressed by the natural sciences; physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics… But the brain kind of impressed me the most, because at some point I realised that even small changes can affect behaviour so much! Like if one part of the brain is growing faster than another during puberty for instance, this can lead to aggressive behaviour. Then it’s changing back, because the other parts are taking back control. This really fascinated me, so I decided to study biology, with a focus on neurobiology. I still had a lot of interest in the other sciences, like modulation, simulations, and physics, so when I met my professor and saw this institute, I realised it was perfect, because there is everything: chemistry, biology, nanotechnology (with physics inside), and engineers working on the electronics. I can really introduce my point of view there.”
And of course, data analysis and and simulations require computers. But not quite on the HPC level yet!
“Up to now we are working more on the smaller level. The simulations that we’re running are a maximum of few days on a very-good “normal” computer. But this is just the beginning. Right now, we’ve been mimicking brain parts on a chip, so in 2D. But we want to of course go 3D, since the brain is three-dimensional! Maybe you have heard of “organoids”, small structures that are similar to the organs we have? And they’re in three dimensions. As you get data from three dimensions, simulations of course get a lot bigger. So at some point also the super-computer will probably be involved.”
I ended by asking Irina if she had any “words of wisdom” for young people considering the sciences.
“I would encourage it, because first of all it is the future! Earlier, we had experiments and we had theory. These were the two pillars of research. But now adays we have this third new pillar, simulation science, which is getting more and more important, and I think it will play a big role in the future!”