Sridevi Sarma, ICM core faculty member and associate professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, was recently a guest on the IEEE Brain Initiative podcast series, where she discussed her background in electrical engineering and control theory, her current research on mathematical models of neurological diseases, and the importance of encouraging young women to pursue careers in engineering. Read some of the highlights from Sarma’s interview below, or listen to the full IEEE Brain podcast on SoundCloud.
The brain is such a huge subject. What is your area of focus?
I’m an engineer by training—an electrical engineer—but the focus of my research is on neurological disorders. So what we try to do is understand the electrical patterns in specific neural circuits that are affected by disease, like Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy, dystonia, and so forth. We really try to understand how you go from normal to disease—what actually changes in the brain.
As an electrical engineer, how do you get pulled into neuroscience?
I did my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD entirely in electrical engineering, and I’m a control theorist by training, so I did mathematics and theory. So how did I get interested in neuroscience? This would lead to, in general, where can electrical engineers play a huge role? As a control theorist, people who train like me go work for Boeing, or Ford, where they’re building controllers to control airplanes and cars and other kinds of electrical and mechanical systems.
For me, the neural circuit is a dynamic system, and what do I want to do? Well I want to control the electrical patterns coming out of this system to make it do something I want it to do. So now I need to model what this neural circuit is, just like an electrical engineer will model the central dynamics of an airplane and then figure out how to control it. I see this whole deep brain stimulation as just an exogenous input that we can design to control this dynamic system. So at the end of the day, my training is perfectly aligned for the idea of controlling brain circuits with electrical stimulation. That’s just one example of how electrical engineers can play a huge role.
You mentioned Parkinson’s earlier. What are you doing in that area?
If you are a healthy person, there are specific neural circuits in the brain that control your movements, and there are electrical patterns that help us move the way we move, freely and in a coordinated way. What we want to understand is how those change when you have, say, Parkinson’s disease, which is a movement disorder. These people can’t move properly; they have tremors and rigidity. So we really want to understand what has changed in those patterns, and once we understand that, what we try to do is say, “Okay, now if I were to electrically stimulate that region of the brain, how can I change those patterns to make a Parkinson’s patient move more like a healthy patient? This idea of putting electrical stimulation in the brain is known as neurostimulation, or deep brain stimulation, and it’s actually a therapy that’s currently used to treat Parkinson’s disease today.
There is a therapy out there already. So what are you adding to the equation?
So deep brain stimulation, or DBS, has been FDA approved and clinically used for the last several decades. But what’s astonishing is that after all this time, people really don’t know why it works. So they put this electrode in the brain, they turn it on, and it looks like a miracle has happened—the person’s symptoms have really suppressed—but they don’t understand what it did because it’s very hard to measure activity in the brain while you’re stimulating it. So what we do in our lab is try to answer this question by building mathematical models that characterize these circuits that are somewhat realistic, then we put in our artificial electrodes, stimulate our computational brain, if you will, and we try to understand what it’s doing. And now, since we know what a healthy person looks like, we try to see, is the stimulation trying to restore your patterns, or is it doing something different that happens to be therapeutic? So these are the kinds of questions we ask.
Promoting women in science is a big topic at the moment. Can you talk about your own experiences?
For myself, being an electrical engineer and going through my undergrad and graduate years, the number of women just declined the more senior I became. For example, during my undergraduate years I had one female professor in the fifty-plus courses that I took. One female. So I had no role models in terms of professors or even teaching assistants, and there were very few colleagues. Sometimes it can be very discouraging when you don’t see people like you doing the same things, and it might make you question yourself. But say you get past that, which I did. What becomes difficult as a woman in engineering or science going into academia or industry is, obviously, if you want to have a family. You’re worried about the timing of things — now you’re getting into your 30s, now you’re getting into your 40s. Here you are competing with men who don’t have children who can put in all the hours that maybe you can’t because you have children. So I think it’s important to do a couple things for women in science, because I absolutely believe that some of the best scientists and engineers that I’ve encountered are women, is to provide opportunities to deal with some of these issues that are very specific to women. I think it’s important to step back and think very carefully to understand individual circumstances, whether it’s gender-specific or race-specific. We need to be really careful of understanding how to help people in different groups and promote them.
What would you say to young women and girls considering the field?
For young girls who are considering the field, I would show them what I do because I think research is so exciting. It’s what makes me wake up and smile every single day — to see what my students are able to accomplish, what questions we can answer, and results, they just make you feel good. They’re kind of like an antidepressant. And it’s exciting. Being in a biomedical engineering field, you see things that might actually help people, but you’re using mathematics and engineering tools to reach that objective. I think that would appeal a lot to young women and girls today. Being an engineer is not about tinkering with trucks or toys, which is fine, but maybe that’s not what may come to their mind. When I was a young girl, when someone said ‘engineer’ I would think of somebody changing a light bulb. I had no idea what an engineer is, but today, engineers can do so many different things and I think a lot of those things would appeal to young girls. So I would want to show them the kinds of things engineers do to encourage them to pursue it.
Sri, what’s your personal goal?
My personal goal is to see my research translated into the clinic and be used to help patients with any kind of neurological disorder.