by Xandra van Megen
Coming from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, rising star Sérgio Pequito recently joined the TU Delft as an assistant professor in the Delft Center for Systems and Control (DCSC). There, he will continue to apply network science and systems thinking to unravel the dynamics of the brain for both technological and medical purposes.
One of his research themes is on brain-computer interfaces. The goal is to be able to extract brainwaves so one day, just like in the movies, we can augment our brain with massive computing power by wearing some fancy hat or attaching a small device to our temple. Companies such as Facebook are, for example, looking into typing-by-brain. At the moment, this is hardly successful, even if test subjects are sitting very still, not blinking, not doing anything. I want to develop the tools so we can bring this technology into the field.
My aim is to unravel the dynamics of the brain for both technological and medical purposes.― Sérgio Pequito
But most of all, Pequito is interested in applying his knowledge towards new personalized medicine approaches, for the treatment of epilepsy, for example. Next to drugs and surgery, neurostimulation devices can play an important role in reducing the number and consequences of the seizures a patient experiences. At the moment, however, these devices use pre-defined stimulation sequences and finding the correct one is a bit of trial and error. I think this should be based on the brain dynamics, and its response to stimulation, of an individual patient,’ Pequito says. ‘I want to use my knowledge to make this tuning process data-driven.
I want neurostimulation for the treatment of epilepsy to become data-driven.― Sérgio Pequito
On the edge of medicine
Pequito firmly believes that math and engineering can complement evidence-based medicine. But in order for engineers to help create revolutionary breakthroughs, they must be exposed to clinical reality. He himself went all the way hands-on, being present when electrodes for neurostimulation were implanted. I wanted to understand the medical protocol behind it and how these professionals think,’ he says. ‘Because of the close collaboration between TU Delft and the medical centres LUMC and ErasmusMC, such cooperation comes naturally, for both engineers and students.
As an engineer in biomedicine, you need to understand how medical professionals think.― Sérgio Pequito
A generational change
‘One person benefitting from my research would already make me incredibly happy,’ he says. ‘But it is often tough to go against established practices and improvements take much longer than I would like to.’ For Pequito, the way forward in medical advances is to expose the next generation of engineers to all the scientific tools that are developed as well as to medical principles and thinking. ‘The TU Delft bachelor’s in clinical technology and master’s in technical medicine put a lot of emphasis on developing braintech and neurotech. My goal is to get these students to places that would have stayed out of reach without this education. I want them to become leaders in the field.’
It is often tough to go against established practices and improvements take much longer than I would like to.― Sérgio Pequito
Grants and funding
Pequito already has a master’s student doing research at LUMC. After successfully fundraising more than $1M at his previous institution to pursue his line of research, he is currently preparing an application for an ERC starting grant. ‘I have only arrived in the Netherlands this summer and you need a lot of local partnerships when applying for such grants. The Netherlands has many start-ups in the neurotech domain, and I am working hard on building collaborations within the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus alliance. I really enjoy everybody’s open mindset.’