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UCLA Magazine Winter 2002
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Winter 2002
The New Scientists

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Other graduate students in neuroengineering are focusing on such questions as how the retina processes motion information. Pedro Irazoqui-Pastor, with a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of New Hampshire, is designing a chip that can be implanted in an animal brain to record electrical activity and then transmit that data to a computer “so we can look at how the cells in the brain work without disturbing the animal in its natural environment.”

Without the IGERT programs, it would be far more difficult for students like Rickus and Irazoqui-Pastor to straddle both worlds.

“This program made it possible for me to explore these unknown areas without just floundering in the wind,” Rickus says. “It sets up lines of communication and formalizes them.”

The cross-talk begins in classes, laboratories, at retreats and journal club meetings where graduate students present and critique recently published papers and discuss them with faculty. “That’s when the biologists get the engineers up to speed, and the engineers bring the biologists up to date,” Rickus says.

What goes on is more than casual conversation; it’s something akin to rewiring the brain patterns of scientific minds that have been trained to think in a particular way, opening them up to seek and understand new approaches to problems. A large part of that is learning the language of the various disciplines.

For example, to an engineer the word “vector” is a mathematical term that refers to a quantity that has direction as well as magnitude. But to a biological scientist, a vector is something that transmits an infection or carries a piece of DNA. While a neuroscientist is talking about a virus, an engineer would be thinking about a mathematical abstraction.


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