February Student Spotlight - Jacob Gusman

February 1, 2019
Ramisa Fariha

Second year PhD student Jacob Gusman’s road to Brown Biomedical Engineering started back when he took a neuroscience class in high school. Jacob, a New England native from Newton, MA, discovered the BrainGate Research at Brown when he started working on the final project for his neuroscience class at Newton South. “In high school, I had enjoyed physics and engineering in addition to neuroscience, so I was excited to come across a field that integrated all of these areas. ” explained Jacob, “What the researchers at BrainGate and others in brain-computer interface research were doing seemed out-of-this-world. Not only were they providing a revolutionary new way to help people with paralysis, but in some ways they were also challenging how we think about our relationship to technology. This really fascinated me, and I knew that it was a field I wanted to be a part of. I had no idea, though, that 5 years later I would end up working in the exact lab that inspired my interests to begin with!”  BrainGate is a research collaboration, that started at Brown more than 17 years ago in the lab of neuroscience and engineering professor John Donoghue. BrainGate’s research team includes leading neurologists, neuroscientists, engineers, computer scientists, neurosurgeons, mathematicians, and other researchers from different institutions– all focused on developing brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies to restore the communication, mobility, and independence of people with neurologic disease, injury, or limb loss. Working with Dr. Leigh Hochberg, who is the lead clinical investigator of the BrainGate trials and Professor of Engineering at Brown, Gusman is also collaborating with a lab at Harvard for his project, “My research focuses on the neural control of a soft upper limb exoskeleton. We are interested in establishing an interface between iBCI and soft robotics in order to allow people with tetraplegia the ability to use their hands once again.” His project is still at a developmental stage, but Jacob is looking forward to conducting more hands-on research this coming year, “For us, we have to be extra cautious since we work with human participants. I have been spent a lot of time doing background research, clearly defining my research goals and designing experiments to be performed with a human participant.”

Speaking of research, Jacob also shared about his research experience abroad. He was a Whitaker Fellow at Chalmers University of Technology, in Gothenburg, Sweden for a year, after graduating from University of Rochester. “During my time in Sweden, I was able to develop a project, run experiments, and write a paper about it, without any disruption. Taking that year off to do full-time research and conducting a project from start to finish gave me a lot of prospective moving forward to a PhD program.” Jacob, whose mother is from Sweden, also took this opportunity to reconnect with some of his family there, “I ended up living in the same building as one of my cousins, and having them around really helped me acclimate to my new surroundings,” he said. Having a year off from academia and then starting graduate school, Jacob shared his insight on the transition, “I always really enjoyed taking classes and learning. In fact, part of why I chose biomedical engineering was because I knew it was an opportunity to take classes in a wide range of topics in order to satisfy my curiosity. My year off helped focus my interests, allowing me to identify my gaps in knowledge and steer me toward classes that could help address those gaps. ” Reflecting on the BME program, he added, “Fortunately, the flexibility of the program here has allowed me to take classes across the spectrum, including Machine Learning in the CS department, and Control Systems Engineering in Engineering. Overall I have been really impressed with the quality of the teaching here at Brown, and impressed by the undergrads and graduate students I have interacted with.”

As an undergraduate student, Gusman was a very involved student. And he continued some of his involvement here at Brown, “Last year I was a part of Brown Chorus, but this year I am a bit too busy to continue with that.” Besides choir, he is also a member of the graduate Biomedical Engineering Society (gBMES) executive board. Graduate students lead a very busy life, and it’s often challenging to be on top of everything. Jacob shared his strategy for time management and keeping track of work, “I have developed the habit of writing to-do lists everyday: both for research, and personal work. Writing it down actually helps me stay focused. I do maintain a digital calendar, and have reminders, but I prefer writing them down as well.” Just this past summer, he adopted a puppy, and named him Odin after the Norse God, who now occupies a lot of his free time, “It feels like all of my free time is spent either walking him or playing with him to get his energy out.” Besides spending time with Odin, Jacob also travels to Boston on weekends to spend time with friends and family. “My parents are loving and caring, and my siblings are my role models,” he continued, “My twin sister works as a Research Assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is much more social than I am, and the way she cares about people- it’s something I look up to her for.” Jacob also considers himself lucky to have found several mentors at the BrainGate Research to look up to, “There’s my PI Dr. Hochberg, who seems to spend half his time as a neurologist at MGH, half his time doing research at Brown, half his time at the Providence VA, and half his time on the commuter rail running between everything. I’m not sure if he ever sleeps. And despite being so busy, he still manages time to mentor his graduate students. At BrainGate there’s also other research professors, postdocs, grad students, technicians, administrators, and close collaborators whom I interact with, so there are always people I can turn to if I have questions about something.”

After his PhD, Jacob hopes to continue conducting cutting-edge research in neural engineering but wants to keep his options open, “I spent five summers at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts during my undergrad years, which was this middle ground between academia and industry, which I liked a lot. I like the idea of being in an industry setting, but still conducting research like at some kind of research institute or in the R&D division of a larger medical device company, or I could also see myself doing a postdoc or two to gain more experience. The field of neural engineering is in this really interesting place right now, where startups are being formed and even larger companies like Facebook and Microsoft are beginning to get involved. It’s hard to tell what opportunities might even exist 3 or 4 years from now, so I’m hoping to keep my options open for now and trust that I will figure it out when the time comes.”