There is a French proverb — “Qui n’avance pas, recule” — that translates as “Who does not move forward, recedes.” There can be no standing still in life, only evolution or devolution. No one knows that more than Rajat Kumar, a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering, who was recently named a Chateaubriand Fellow. That proverb is especially fitting as the prestigious award will enable him to pursue his studies in France for a semester.
“I started coding at a very young age and had hobbies in computer architecture, electronics and mathematics,” said Rajat, providing a glimpse into his life-long interest in engineering.
However, shortly into his first job after graduating from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, working as an engineer at an oil and gas company, he realized that if he wanted to keep pursuing that range of interdisciplinary interests, industry wasn’t the place to be. He decided to attend graduate school, with an eye toward an interdisciplinary field.
“The primary motivation for me to pursue biomedical engineering was so that I can tinker with multiple things at once,” he said.
Rajat came to the US from India in 2015, choosing to work with Stony Brook professor Lilianne Mujica-Parodi, who is now his Ph.D. advisor.
“I was introduced to her work through a news article on her famous ‘sky-diving’ study [which explored the ability of humans to detect emotional stress],” said Rajat. “The lab I currently work for (Laboratory for Computational Neurodiagnostics with Dr. Mujica-Parodi) is highly interdisciplinary, includes people with backgrounds in physics, mathematics, computer science, neuroscience and engineering, and has a very intellectually challenging work environment. I love it!”
Rajat cites two classes as particular favorites: BME 526: Biological Systems Engineering, taught by Dr. Mujica-Parodi, and MBA 505: Marketing, taught by professor Michael Kamins.
“I liked BME 526 because it exposed me to the world of computational modelling for the first time,” said Rajat. “MBA 505 was very practical and by the end of the class I had learned how to write a good business plan.”
Looking ahead, Rajat’s immediate goal is to complete his Ph.D. with a strong and impactful thesis. After graduation in 2021 he sees himself remaining in academia as a professor, or possibly exploring opportunities in the business world.
Regarding his thesis, the Chateaubriand Fellowship is particularly meaningful as it relates to the specialized work Rajat will be doing.
“In my thesis, I am working on an area that significantly advances clinical neuroscience in two directions,” he explains. “The first is in radically increasing the quality of neuroimaging data, and second, once those data are available, harnessing them with analytic techniques from control systems engineering. Doing so may allow us, for the first time, to discover nonlinear control circuits in the brain.”
According to Rajat, this has large-scale implications.
“Clinical neuroscience has for years thrown about terminology like ‘circuits’ and ‘dysregulation,’” he says. “We are finally in a position to begin approaching these concepts in quantitative data-driven ways. The ability to quantify dysregulation of neural control circuits could have groundbreaking implications for clinical neurodiagnostics of psychiatric and neurological disorders.”
The Stony Brook Dynamic Phantom, currently patent-pending, is a small device that would provide for tighter calibration and quality assurance for optimal fMRI function and ultimately, cutting-edge diagnostic tools for brain diseases, and is a critical piece of Rajat’s thesis work.
To this end, the Chateaubriand Fellowship has made possible a collaboration with Philippe Ciuciu at NeuroSpin, a neuroimaging research center located near Paris, where Rajat will be working during the spring 2020 semester.
“NeuroSpin has just received one of the most powerful scanners in the world,” said Rajat. “Such a scanner is an enormous source of pride for NeuroSpin and France, but since it’s so cutting-edge it could take years or even decades to fully develop the necessary infrastructure, systematic methods for optimization, and optimal applications for exploiting its power. This is where the work of our group with the Stony Brook Dynamic Phantom comes in.”
The Chateaubriand Fellowship is a grant offered by the Embassy of France in the United States. It supports outstanding Ph.D. students from American universities who wish to conduct research in France.
— Robert Emproto