LLNL Engineer Dr. Vanessa Tolosa’s Quest for Neurotechnology Breakthroughs
The next entry in our popular Women in STEM Series profiles Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Principal Investigator Dr. Vanessa Tolosa. Ms. Tolosa was recently the keynote speaker at the Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair where middle and high school students from across the Tri-Valley shared projects and applications of the scientific method.
James Morehead: What does the scientific method mean to you?
Dr. Vanessa Tolosa: “The core message of the scientific method is to first come up with an idea, a hypothesis, for why something might be happening, and then test that hypothesis by performing experiments. The experiments aren’t random; rather you look at a specific variable that you believe is causing the problem or effect, perform tests and measure or monitor the response. If you are right, you’re done; if you’re wrong you adjust the test and iterate. That alone is really the heart of science and engineering, it’s what I did while completing my PhD, what I do when conducting research, and what I do on a daily basis without thinking about it.
“Taking a step back, what I just described is what people do every day to avoid being fooled by charlatans. You stop and ask questions – how does this cure work and why? What evidence is there to demonstrate the hypothesis? Just stopping to ask questions is a key element of the scientific method. When it becomes natural to ask questions, formulate and test hypotheses, it makes you less susceptible to being fooled. This way of thinking more independently helps me every day in and outside the lab.”
Morehead: When sparked your interest in engineering?
Tolosa: “For me there never really was a moment when I decided I wanted to be an engineer. At the University of Florida, where I completed my undergraduate degree, it wasn’t required to pick a major until the end of your sophomore year. At that time I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I knew I liked science, but I wavered from astrology to anthropology to psychology. When I was younger I wanted to be a parapsychologist, studying the supernatural! I flip-flopped for a while when I was younger.
“Because I liked math and science I’d been taking chemistry all along as part of my required courses and when I looked at engineering I realized I had taken all the pre-requisite courses, and that there was a path to a job. I knew I didn’t want to go through college, end up with a degree but then not be able to get a job. I was the first person in my family to get a college degree so it was really important to me that I make something of the opportunity, so that I could help my family financially. From what little I knew about engineering at the time I was confident I could get a job with the degree.
“My peers at the time told me that students change their majors all the time and I’d also heard that chemical engineering was really hard and that many students drop out, but as it turned out I loved the subject and ended up with a PhD in chemical engineering!
“When I was applying to the PhD program at UCLA, and was exposed to neuroscience (the science of psychology), I found ways to bridge what I knew about chemical engineering with this other field. Ultimately that led to neurotechnology which combined my skills and interests.”
Morehead: Describe neurotechnology in layman’s terms.
Tolosa: “Neurotechnology are tools we develop to better understand how the brain works. The brain also encompasses your nervous system. The brain is the most complicated organ in our body and yet we still know very little about how the brain works. The more I got into this field the more I realized how little we know!
“Neurotechnology helps scientists study the brain. It’s very difficult to study the human brain, you can’t damage a living brain of course, so there are a lot of limitations. Thanks to the BRAIN Initiative announced by President Obama in April 2013 (with the ‘N’ in BRAIN standing for neurotechnology), $100 million was set aside through DARPA, NSF, and NIH with the specific goal of developing technologies to better understand the brain.”
Morehead: What are some of the practical applications of neurotechnology research?
Tolosa: “There are several projects that excite me. Our very first neuroprosthetic project was a retinal prosthesis which has just started being implanted in people over the past two years and has been commercialized by Second Sight. This technology has enabled people who have been blind for many years due to retinitis pigmentosa to start seeing again. In one case, a person with this condition was able to ski while wearing the prosthesis. The system works better when there is a lot of contrast. Since snow is white it’s easier to see objects and obstacles. Creating a technology that enabled a blind person to ski is very rewarding!
The second project I’m very excited about, which was just funded by DARPA, builds on research on peripheral nerves by Professor Dustin Tyler at Case Western Reserve University professor. Nerve cuff electrodes are implanted in patients who have lost limbs from the elbow down. Depending on the electrode that is stimulated the patient perceives feeling from the missing limb. You are able to ask the patient what they sense as different electrodes are stimulated and as a result learn more about how the nervous system functions. Additionally, when the current amplitude and pulse duration are changed the patient feels different sensations such as ‘it feels like water’ or ‘that feels like velvet’.
“No one has ever been able to control sensations from a missing limb before; we’ve been able to control robotic arms with basic movements, but never send signals back. This is important because without feedback the users of these prosthetics can’t tell how hard they are gripping objects. Without the feedback loop a patient picking cherries off a stem with a robotic arm would crush the cherries, but with the feedback of sensation enabled was able to pick cherries without damaging them.”
“Testing on animals can only take you so far. Retinal testing was originally done on dogs but you can’t ask a dog what they see, and for tests involving sensation you can’t ask an animal what they feel, so it’s very important that we find ways to involve humans in testing.”
Morehead: PhD graduates represent a very small percentage of all graduates. What inspired you to pursue the ultimate academic degree?
Tolosa: “It’s embarrassing to think about it now, but when I started college, as the first member in my family to do so, I didn’t know what a BS was, and I didn’t know there was an MS or PhD, until my junior year in college. I didn’t receive good counseling in high school and wasn’t even encouraged to apply to college, so I feel I was lucky to stumble upon higher education.
“At first I thought I’d get a bachelors degree, get a job and help my family. Then one day in my sophomore year I saw a poster advertising research opportunities at a national lab, which led to an internship at the Berkeley National Lab. It was my first time away from my home and my family. I loved California which is what ultimately led me to go to UCLA for grad school. That internship experience and going back to school at the end of the summer helped me realize how much I loved science, and that I wanted to go deeper which ultimately led me to a PhD.
“In my senior year I did get nervous and felt I was being selfish, that I should get a job to help my family. After graduation I ended up getting a job and working for about nine months. After three months I was bored, I wasn’t mentally stimulated. I was working for an environmental consulting firm and I just felt like I was changing numbers in reports when I really wanted to understand how the technology worked.”
Morehead: What advice do you have for students who are the first in their family to go to college?
Tolosa: “Seek out guidance. Talk to multiple guidance counselors. Not all counselors are good and because you don’t know what you don’t know it’s hard to tell if you are getting good advice or not. Some families can discourage their children from going to college. When I told my mom I was accepted into a PhD program she replied, ‘You already have a degree, why do you need a PhD? Can you give one of your degrees to your brother?’
“I’ve spoken to friends that are in similar situations. A friend of mine from a very traditional family was discouraged even more, she was told to live at home until she was married and have babies rather than to to college. My mom took it really hard when I came to California for grad school. I’m Filipino and in our culture even the men will stay and live at home into their late 20s or early 30s if they aren’t married. It’s very hard for families like mine to let their children go off on their own for school.
“I encourage students who are getting that pushback from their family to stick with it. What you are doing is good for your family. It’s hard for parents from a traditional background to see the good that will come from pursuing multiple degrees. Stick with it and seek guidance is my advice!”
Morehead: In your keynote address at the Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair you spoke about the importance of communication skills in STEM fields. Why is that?
Tolosa: “I didn’t realize how important communication skills were until I started working at LLNL. I’ve been at LLNL for almost five years and at first I was intimidated, surrounded by MIT and Berkeley engineers and scientists. I think that feeling made me work harder. I first established I could do the technical work, but then I also started winning proposals. At the Lab you submit written proposals for projects and if the evaluation team likes what you wrote you get the opportunity to give a 20-minute presentation.
“I applied my first year with low expectations because according to my boss first years rarely win proposals. I ended up ranking first out of sixty proposals, and that happened a couple more times, which helped me realize the importance of communication skills. I saw arguably better proposals not win because they were poorly communicated. The best ideas don’t necessarily get done, you have to be able to convince people that your idea should be funded or take priority over other ideas. I’ve worked very hard to continue developing my communication skills.”
Morehead: You mentioned being intimidated by other researchers, that sounds a lot like ‘imposter syndrome’.
Tolosa: “I love that terms like ‘imposter syndrome’ are being discussed in our generation. I don’t recall hearing terms like that growing up, or the role of women in science. When I have conversations with my girl friends, who are all scientists and engineers, it strikes me that we’re having similar experiences. I thought it was just me that felt I’d gotten lucky, I still catch myself having those doubts. When I hear the same doubts from women I believe are brilliant I think ‘what’s wrong with you!’
“Imposter syndrome impacts a lot of successful women who attribute their success to someone else or luck instead of their own talent and abilities. Women aren’t taking enough credit for their abilities, and we have to recognize and fight against that tendency. When you are submitting a proposal or going for a promotion or fighting for a raise it’s important you believe in your talent. You need to be your own biggest fan.”
Morehead: What are the types of problems you work on at the Lab and how do you deal with problems that take years, or even decades, to solve?
Tolosa: “The work we do in the lab is at the intersection of industry and academia. Industry has a product focus and deadlines, whereas academia focuses on a theory or hypothesis without a specific product in mind. Our projects have longer timelines with deliverables along the way, and sometimes, in particular DARPA projects, deadline driven timelines. You need to be able to work both on long-term and deadline driven projects.
“For long-term research projects there isn’t instant satisfaction, in fact it’s 99% failure! My PhD was in part learning how to take failure because on most days you are failing enroute to the 1% of the item where you have a breakthrough or succeed. If research projects were easy, it wouldn’t take years, the problem would already have been solved. It takes time to solve difficult problems, and the more you research the more you realize there is so much we don’t know about just about everything!”
Morehead: So much of our education system has been driven by standardized tests where the goal is to get the “right” answer, whereas scientific discovery and exploration naturally includes making many mistakes along the way to a breakthrough. What are you thoughts on how we can better prepare our students to become scientists and engineers?
Tolosa: “I’d like to say to the teachers, don’t be so driven on getting students to the ‘right answer’ or having students memorize the method you taught them. Rather, reward students for finding a different path to an answer. I’ve heard that the Common Core is more focused on critical thinking, which sounds great if that’s true. It’s more important to get students to think independently and creatively about the problem, to want to know why the question is being asked and why the question is important, than simply finding the answer. If you know the motivation for a question you’ll likely be more inspired to find the answer.”
Morehead: What closing thoughts do you have for students, especially girls, who are interested in math and science?
Tolosa: “Surround yourself with a strong support system, with people who want you to succeed, who won’t judge you based on your gender.”