What you seek is seeking you
My childhood was spent in the foothills of the Himalayas, amongst connectedness with nature, full of inquisitiveness and curiosity. I had a privileged childhood with excellent teachers both at school and at home. My teachers entertained my whys and my hows and tried to foster critical thinking and reasoning in me from early days. They also led me towards my journey in science which started well before I could comprehend. With my father being a surgeon and my mother a botanist, our household conversations would often revolve around biology, medicine, and philosophy. I also had both sets of grandparents around while growing up, who placed high importance on philanthropy and social commitments. I believe that’s how science and using its power to serve others, became an indispensable part of my being.
When I was introduced to physiology in middle school, I felt instantly driven to it. Never before had I known the workings of such a sophisticated yet robust machine, the human body. Above all, I was fascinated to know that everything our bodies do, the way we move, we feel, and we remember, is governed by a few pounds of a pinkish-grey flesh sitting securely in our skulls. When the time arrived for me to apply for college, I wanted to study brain sciences, but I also had an inkling towards learning engineering. Biomedical Engineering or Neural Engineering may seem like an obvious program choice now, but back in the mid 2000s in India, application of engineering to study the human mind was not mainstream. My mentors encouraged me to take up more popular engineering disciplines like electrical or computers and then use the degree to advance into the career of my choice. Their advice was rooted in the concern of not wanting me to commit to this new type of research with career options that they had hardly heard of. Nevertheless, the recommendation seemed reasonable, and I enrolled for an Electrical engineering undergraduate program, believing that learning about electrical circuits will help me better understand brain circuits. As luck would have had it, this turned out to be a step in the right direction. During my senior year in college, I got the opportunity to work on a heart activity recorder (electrocardiogram) which used an electrical interface to communicate with the human body. The first time I saw the recorded physiological electrical activity in real-time on a screen monitor, it simply blew my mind! I experienced the potential of biomedical technologies in helping us better understand physiological electrical systems at a deeper level. I became more certain about combining my two interests, human brain, and engineering. I started looking for people who were already engineering brain interfaces and began surfing more on the internet about brain electrodes and prosthetic limbs. The state-of-the-art of brain computer interfaces (BCIs) baffled me. Researchers around the world had already begun to help people with disabilities engage with the digital world better than with an ordinary human body. I applied to a few graduate schools with neurotechnology research programs and travelled halfway across the world to Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA for my doctoral research. Leaving the support of family and friends behind was, and still is, a painful idea. However, it was hard to let go of the possibility to learn from the pioneers of neural engineering in Michigan.
While designing brain interfaces for my graduate thesis, I acquired a wide range of experiences. From discovering the world of microfabrication and micro-optics, to dissecting brains in medical school’s neuroscience laboratory practices, to performing craniotomies and histology on animal models, I got to do it all. The devices we built were used by our neuroscience research collaborators to collect brain data from animals, study local memory neural circuits, and unlock fundamental mysteries of the human brain. It is said that living your dreams is not a cheap experience, my journey was not easy either. I learnt that graduate research is as much about building patience, persistence, and resilience as it is about unlocking a new science or the next best technology. The only mantra to endure challenges on the way is to have ceaseless passion for the work you do. As I was closer to finishing my thesis, I knew that I wanted to continue making brain implants, but I had not made up my mind on whether to join industry or academia. Interestingly, around the same time, I was introduced to the Implantables neurotechnology group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).
LLNL is a federally funded research facility in the United States which solves novel scientific and technological challenges related to national and global security. National laboratories like LLNL form a nice niche between industry and academia where the latest science and technology are used to answer critical questions driving product or service translation. The neurotech team at LLNL and I connected over our match for the mission and instantly hit it off. After finishing school, I moved to California to join LLNL as a post-doctorate scientist and later became a staff member there. The implantables group at LLNL builds cutting edge brain implants to realize transformative cures for neurological disorders suffered by soldiers in war and by general population. During my four years at LLNL, I got to be a part of an exceptionally talented group and an amazing work culture. Our team partnered with multidisciplinary expertise onsite as well as with neuroscience and clinical teams across the country driving translation of brain technologies for a broader user base. The breadth and depth of the experience that I gained at LLNL was both exciting and rewarding. As years went by, I felt the need to push myself towards newer challenges. In 2021, I decided to end my time at the laboratory and explore other possibilities to contribute to the burgeoning world of neurotechnology.
As much as I like solving problems, I also take great pleasure in disseminating solutions to a larger group of people. As scientists, usually we achieve broader accessibility for our scientific discoveries via our published work, however, It should not stop there; we can possibly do much more if we want. I believe scientific advances in neurosciences has tremendous power to bring societal changes at many levels, which is why this field should spread beyond scientists and doctors and restricted geographies. I started doing my bit by partnering with non-profit organizations and helping them construct educational and career awareness programs on neurotechnology and neuroscience. The subject instantly clicked with our targeted audience such as students and their parents and clinical care providers as our initiatives started during the Covid-19 pandemic, which had helped to bring focus on mental well-being. In parallel, I consulted for research institutions and start-ups who are at the forefront of medical technology translation and patient care in a growing economy like India. It was a mutually learning experience for which I will always be thankful for. My time spent with early-stage medical technology startups made me confident about my next calling of driving consumer products and bringing neurotechnology to the masses. This led me to join Neuralink, a startup based in Silicon Valley. The mission at Neuralink is to develop brain computer interfaces that can treat a wide variety of debilitating neurological disorders and help restore the quality of lives of patients suffering from paralysis, dementia, seizures, depression, or other related illnesses. The number of people in the world with neurological disorders is bewildering, almost one-eighth of the population suffers from one or the other kind of neurological disorder. Neuralink’s focus is to create a technology that is not only safe and powerful but also connects seamlessly with the user and is easy to use. Today, it is inspiring to see many companies in the field with similar missions.
The future is not far away when neural sensors will integrate into our everyday lives. This necessitates that we take forward leaps with utmost responsibility guarding human identity, freedom of thought, privacy, and well-being. I am extremely hopeful and excited for the future where neurotechnology and its encompassing benefits, ethical concerns, and privacy risks, will all become a predominant part of the conversation leading to meaningful resolutions. If I had to share a piece from my learnings with our budding scientists and engineers, I would say that they must identify their purpose, and not confuse it with their passion. A passion can be selfish, but a purpose cannot, and it is often the differentiation between the two that helps us decide right from less right in life. The real value of worth always lies in what we can offer to improve the current state of things rather than what we can take out of it for our own self. Bringing a meaningful change into action often requires that we take detours, and we must not be afraid to do so. We should never let the fear of failure, loss of convenience or judgement of others hold us back from taking the right kind of risks. Every calculated risk is an opportunity to grow, know more about our own selves, challenge ourselves, become mentally stronger and better and eventually take human evolution forward.
Dr. Komal Kampasi is an Engineering Lead at Neuralink Corp. She is interested in studying neural interfaces and neural implants. Dr. Kampasi is also the member of Project Encephalon's Scientific Advisory Committee.