• JoJo

The Woman of Carbon Fiber

You have undoubtedly heard of Superman: the Man of Steel? The superhero whose only weakness is kryptonite? But have you heard of the Woman of Carbon Fiber? Of course you have, you just know her as Cindy Chestek, Associate Professor, Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan. I met with Chestek at Neuromodulation: The Science in Napa this summer where she was on the first all-female panel I have ever seen – in neurotech or anywhere else. (Full disclosure, one panelist was unable to attend at the last minute and her talk was delivered by a male colleague; but it was slated to be all women presenters.) Manel Schmanel. The conference organizers including Eric Grigsby and Marom Bikson both made it clear that the panel was only coincidentally all women; they were looking for fresh, strong talent in neural engineering – the fact that they were all women was a happy byproduct of the inherent talent.

Chestek had also never seen an all-female panel but did suggest that it was getting much easier to do with every year that goes by. I had the privilege of working on the organizing committee for IEEE’s Neural Engineering Conference in San Francisco earlier this year with Chestek and her co-chairs, Jose Carmena, Paul Sajda, and Michel Maharbiz. That program also had a remarkably balanced program in all areas of diversity. “We had a lot more women speakers and it was not that hard to do. There are a lot of talented women in the field these days,” said Chestek.

With the success of NER (and knowing how much work she and the other organizers put into the event) I asked Chestek if she had any plans to serve as a meeting organizer again any time soon. “I think I’m going to wait a little while. We have some really cool conferences in neural engineering. I want to help with more of them, I just have to figure out which one.”

Columbia professor Paul Sajda and an NER Co-Chair shared his praise for her professional accomplishments and contributions. “Cindy has been pioneering novel research directions in BMI while also taking on important leadership roles in the neural engineering community,” he said. “She is a fantastic role model, especially for young women who are interested in the exciting and emerging field of neurotechnology.”

Chestek will be the keynote speaker at the 2019 Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses Retreat in December with presentations from some of the hottest names in the neurotech community including research updates from Knight, Carmena, Maharbiz, Chang, Gallant and many more. She keeps good company.

It’s clear that Chestek enjoys the leadership and advocacy roles that she fills within the field – but she’s equally passionate about her research and her students. Her colorful descriptions of muscle tacos and other projects reveal her ability to take serious engineering tasks and let the fun and wonder shine through. I find it exhilarating when researchers have fun with their work; Chestek’s frivolity is rivaled only by her passion and her purpose. So, what is Chestek most excited about now?

“It’s hard to pick a favorite project. I’m very excited about three different things for three different reasons. Certainly, it’s rewarding to work with people with amputations and letting them control the prosthetic hand for the first time. Our monkeys with telepathy is an amazing project and we’ve gotten some great results recently,” said Chestek of the individual finger control the NHPs are exhibiting. “The carbon fibers are going out the door faster than we can make them. I think they’re going to be great neuroscience tools. Those are basically the thirds that make up my lab.”

The carbon fiber electrodes are not only remarkable feats of engineering, they also provide Chestek and her students with outstanding collaboration opportunities. “I try to work with everyone in a way that makes sense for them,” said Chestek pragmatically. “We’ve been really fortunate to be funded to work with beta testers and to distribute our devices.” Operating off of a simple data sheet, the Chestek lab offers up their most reliable hardware to which nearly everyone requests a tweak here or a minor modification there. The special requests, managed in-house by Juliana Richie, have resulted in a 2019 SfN poster featuring many of the variations that have been made over the past several years. Each customization has ended up being its own mini-collaboration and an impressive demonstration of the demand for and the flexibility of the design of the electrodes. “It’s maybe not a very good idea for a company because everyone wants something different, but they are very customizable which is good,” she said with characteristic humility.

Chestek also has active collaborations with University of California San Francisco and the neural engineering program at Case Western Reserve University (adding to my theory that Case is out to dominate the world through an unending web of benevolent Tentacula) and the Functional Electrical Stimulation Center, to name a few.

With so many prospective applications for neural engineering and so many long term goals for the field, I often wonder what gets researchers excited about near-term advancements. Chestek has a clinical trial in progress: Short-Term Implanted Electrodes Following Regenerative Peripheral Nerve Surgery for Improving Prosthetic Limb Control Signals and expects to have a publication on the human results very soon.

“But my heart is also in brain machine interfaces,” she confessed. “The other projects may seem unrelated, but they’re not. My underlying motivation in the carbon fibers is that, as good as our videos look now – with controlling finger movement or end-point position and things like that from brain signals – everything explodes if we get an order of magnitude more channels. That’s really on the table now. We know how to do the electrode. We know how to do the signal processing. It’s all going to come together over the course of the next decade. I think there’s a lot of room for growth in performance of brain machine interfaces.

“I keep chasing the highest density of neural interface. BMIs are cool, but it’s sort of a special case of what we can do once I can talk to the nervous system the same way I can talk to a computer. I want to keep driving until we can talk to all of it. You can kind of see a future where medicine becomes interacting with the electrical system. That would be so cool.”

While Chestek chases higher and higher neural interface densities, she’s a champion of all progress made in the field. She’s not shy about her ambitions and hopes to have (and already has had) a significant role in making great advances. In particular, she hopes to see one of the cellular scale electrodes applied in wide scale for BMI. “I want to see a 1,000 channel, totally enclosed, totally wireless, totally hermetic, totally robust system. I’m very optimistic that that will happen within the next ten years.”

That’s quite a system. That’s a game-changer. It’s easy to believe that Chestek and her lab will play a significant role in getting us there, which of course opens the door for the question of a spin-out. Is there a Chestek CEO in the wings? Apparently not. Chestek is not in any hurry to relinquish her role as a mentor. I asked her directly about the idea of a start-up “Yeah, that’s not me. I’m very happy as faculty. I really enjoy thinking past the next couple of steps and I think that’s more appropriate for faculty. I also love having students. I certainly support my students if they want to pursue startups; a lot of the start-ups that do really well are very student driven.”

The Chestek lab is primarily comprised of PhD students with a dash of postdocs – both of whom are former students. “I think most of the big advances, the big moments are coming from PhD students. I think it’s more common because we’re a little more electrical engineering and there are fewer postdocs in that space. I also think it’s the timeline. Most neural engineering projects that go from thought to implementation take multiple years; the five-year timeline of a PhD student just makes a lot more sense.”

I’ve frequently heard professors liken their students to children – or rather that their role as mentor is more like that of a parent, but Chestek fondly describes her student rotations in more agricultural terms. “I feel like I take my students in crops. I figure out how to get everybody paid for through graduation and then I get a grant past that and I open the door a little and read the applications and I see so many cool people and then I take on a new crop. There are years I don’t take any students and there are years I have taken four new students.” It must be time for a new crop because her lab is currently recruiting both PhD students and postdocs.

While Chestek doesn’t have designs on industry herself, she’s supportive of whatever track her students elect to take. Karen Schroeder is finishing her postdoc at Columbia and is entering the job market this fall. Another student continues to work with Chestek on the carbon fiber project, another is at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and yet another has joined the medical device industry. “She told me what her starting salary is,” commented Chestek, “I said ‘Wow!’ That’s definitely a valid choice.”

The demand for the unique talents fostered in the Chestek lab is high – and isn’t limited to neural engineering. “I’m really happy that all of them have chosen to stay in the field, so they must have enjoyed it at least a little bit,” she said. “If anything, I think there has been a trend over the last couple of years where we’re losing people that would have been excellent postdocs because there are so many excellent opportunities in industry, especially between all of the startups and the major tech companies launching neuro divisions.”

You know I love to hear the ‘Oh crap stories’ (side note: when it’s my turn to interview you – please be sure to have a juicy ‘Oh crap’ story for me. We learn more from failures than successes.) Here’s an SAT question for you: Kryptonite is to Superman as “blank” is to Cindy Chestek. Chestek’s story almost makes you forget that she’s a superhero (but only for a second. “I don’t think that any scientific project is complete until you’ve had some kind of scare that you failed a control,” she advised. “Sometimes it looks like you might have failed and you say ‘Oh no, half of my data is corrupt. Something is wrong’ and you have to redo everything. I think that virtually all of the projects that we have gone through have had a moment like that.

“Probably one of the most embarrassing things that I have ever done was recording some movement artifacts and called them action potentials,” confided Chestek. “I was to the point that I was so excited that I sent it to a program officer. We didn’t publish it. We caught it. It’s fine. Everyone has a moment like that.”

Like any great superhero, the Woman of Carbon Fiber has an origin story. She completed her undergrad and master’s in electrical engineering at – wait for it – Case Western Reserve University where her undergrad advisor encouraged her to think about doing some research. As luck would have it, she was unable to find a suitable internship in an electrical engineering lab at the time and ended up taking a summer position in a neuroscience lab. “As soon as I recorded from a neuron for the first time I was completely hooked,” she recalled. “I’ve been in a neuroscience lab since I was about 20. I was never going to leave at that point.” I kicked around whether I was going to do neural engineering in academia or in industry, but I kept not wanting to leave and eventually they make you a professor.”

Her PhD program led her to Stanford University, but she eventually found herself back in the midwest. “Michigan had a strong history of neural engineering but at the time I was looking, most of the current people weren’t there yet,” recounted Chestek.

The clinical community at the University of Michigan played a big role in swaying Chestek their way. Parag Patil and Paul Cederna were influential in her recruitment and her decision to join Michigan. Just in case Patil didn’t know the weight of his role in bringing Chestek to Michigan, I told him that he was, in fact, an instrumental influence. The admiration society is evidently mutual. “My colleague, Cindy Chestek, is a rising star in the field of neuroprosthetics – not only a superb scientist, but an incredible teacher and mentor as well.”

Once Chestek signed on with Michigan, she momentarily found herself as a bit of an outlier. “I was the only neural engineering lab in BME for about a year,” Chestek said. “It turned out extremely well. There are a lot of opportunities to try to help shape the program. I think it has become very translational; there are just so many opportunities to collaborate with the medical doctors. I could never leave because I don’t think I could get the same resources somewhere else.” So it looks like the Woman of Carbon Fiber will continue to Go Blue – at least for now.

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