Why Research Matters
Imagine a machine capable of transmitting a signal directly to someone’s brain, allowing them to see, hear, or feel. Conversely, consider manipulating a machine with nothing more than a thought. This may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but in fact, for over forty years, researchers around the world have been working on devising communication pathways between the brain and external devices. One such researcher is Saba Farbodkia, a 3rd year PhD candidate at the Centre for Neuroscience Studies (CNS), who hopes to dedicate her career to helping create such brainmachine interfaces.
As computational power continues to grow alongside our understanding of the human brain, the production of such cognitively controlled devices becomes increasingly attainable. According to Saba, “Such an advancement is not simply about convenience. Especially for those severely disabled, the development of brain-machine interfaces could be life changing. This could be one of the most important technological breakthroughs in decades.”
Saba first entered neuroscience at the master’s level after completing a bachelor’s degree in biology. Completing both degrees at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) in Iran, she began her academic career at Queen’s University starting her PhD. Having been fascinated with the applied aspect of science her entire life, the prospect of building a cognitively controlled brain-machine interface had been an extreme motivator for her transition to neuroscience. “Brains have electrical activity. Much like a machine, they can actually record that activity and transmit it. To connect the two however, we need an interface able to translate the code used by the brain to that used by a machine,” Saba explains. “Deciphering the code used by the brain is the first step. This is a giant feat. One I am actively working towards.”
At CNS, Saba is a member of Professor Martin Paré’s research team – a team focused on mapping the physiology of cognitive processes. Saba specifically works towards determining the physiology of visual working memory in the parietal lobe, an area of the brain important for the integration of sensory information. In “essentially a simple version of a video game,” Saba monitors brain activity in response to assigned behavioural tasks, such as determining whether the various colours of a “light show” have changed between a first and subsequent presentation – a measure of working memory.
Determining how working memory is represented in the parietal lobe is an important first step in understanding how to influence and modify it. Once elucidated, Saba plans to apply her acquired signal isolation and recording experience to investigate other areas of the brain. She hopes her research, both current and future, will serve as key stepping stones in one day making cognitively controlled brain-machine interfaces a reality.
In addition to her stimulating research, Saba is also an active member of the Queen’s community. Since beginning her studies, Saba has been heavily involved in activities across campus, including sitting on several internal educational review committees. Her most current appointment is as student ambassador for “Research Matters,” a campaign run by the Council of Ontario Universities.
The campaign is a collaborative project between Ontario’s 21 publically-assisted universities, which aims to connect the public directly with Ontario’s researchers and their work, and demonstrate the large-scale impact of research. As an ambassador, Saba’s main role has been engaging the student body as well as the larger Kingston community in campaign events and special initiatives. For example, in February 2014, Research Matters hosted a 21-day virtual scavenger hunt in which participants received a daily email clue about a particular research group at an Ontario-based university. The clues varied in discipline and difficulty, yet were designed to encourage people to spend a few minutes scouring the websites of various university research groups for answers and learn a thing or two along the way.
Saba believes that the campaign is making great strides towards breaking down barriers and building bridges between Ontario researchers and the public. “Every day university researchers are producing new, useful and fascinating knowledge that affects industry, government and community life in a multitude of ways. Research enables not only leaders in industry or government but also average citizens to make smart, informed decisions regarding a range of issues important to all Ontarians and those around the world.”
On May 3, Research Matters came to Kingston with their “Curiosity Shop” – a travelling pop-up venue that allows people across the province to ask questions to be answered by some of the tens of thousands of researchers at Ontario universities.
The booth was exhibited at the Rogers K-Rock Centre at Science Rendezvous – a free national one-day public festival of events that takes place annually, and showcases the passion and importance of science and research, primarily for a younger audience.
The Kingston event met with resounding success, with over 3500 visitors. Queen’s staff and graduate students, who managed the booth, channeled hundreds of questions in the form of shared photos and written post-its, such as “why is my baby sister’s hair curly?” and “where do fruit flies come from?”
(e)Affect Issue 5 Spring 2014