It's the darling of the neuro world right now. Revolutionary and, for those so inclined, wide open as a career field. Brain-Computer Interface isn't just for the math-prone engineers, but truly for anyone with interest and ambition right now. At a recent webinar, Neurable’s research engineer Dr. Mavi Ruiz-Blondet and CEO Dr. Ramses Alcaide, talked about entering the field of BCI.
“Not everyone needs a startup. There’s no reason to re-invent every single wheel,” Alcaide said, “You’ll learn what needs to be invented and what doesn’t.”
Alcaide's education began in signal processing and then into electrical engineering. He eventually earned a doctorate in neuroscience. Ruiz-Blondet began her education in electronic engineering, then moved into cognitive brain sciences where she earned a doctorate degree.
While those career paths make sense, the pair agree that other skills including law, patents, business and geosphere information systems go hand in hand with what they do each day in BCI. In an academic lab, each person needs every skill and tremendous amounts of time can be spent on individual pieces of a project. That's not necessarily the case with a business. Companies tend to be much more collaborative and flexible.
“In academia, all details are important. While our team is pretty intense about that,” Alcaide said, “there are moments when we just have to move forward. The product has to ship.” One of the first terms Ruiz-Blondet learned when she joined Neurable was the concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This is one of the terms that separates academia from industry.
Within the hard sciences, useful skills to work in BCI come from fields such as Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, where you will learn time-frequency transformations, signal processing and machine learning, Ruiz-Blondet says. These skills allow you to make sense of neural data that many labs have made available on their websites. A different set of skills come from the field of Neuroscience and Electrophysiology, learning about designing and setting up experiments to get meaningful neural data, removing the limitations of using data off-the-shelf. Alcaide contends that many future endeavors will focus more on user experience than on signal processing.
Ruiz-Blondet encourages an advanced degree in the hard sciences, but coming in from a non-technical perspective also brings a diversity of thought at his company. Ruiz-Blondet says she used to think the professor path was the only way to work in BCI, but she says the landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years. By 2018 she noted that her advisors were hired by for-profit companies. If you’re passionate about patent law or even marketing, Alcaide says, there's likely a place for you in BCI.
"BCI is not a big space. Think about what makes you unique and drill down on that," Alcaide says. "Join communities or volunteer in the space until you know more. Continue your current education or career and find a BCI project on the side. Hustle, get connected. I once walked up to an airline executive and asked for an internship. It's hard, but just do it. You never know when would be a good time to transition to a professional BCI role."
Ruiz-Blondet also encourages initiative and getting your hands dirty. "There are databases, libraries and manuals out there, especially from a BCI community called NeuroTechX, so you can follow them and try some things, show some results and then ask for help. There are many open-source projects out there could use an extra hand.”
Ruiz-Blondet isn’t sure how she got the idea of BCI into her head when she was back in high school and thinks it is probably from being a fan of anime series such as Evangelion. Alcaide says his interest originally stemmed from an uncle who lost the use of his legs. These types of passions are the most important catalysts. The education and it’s disparate paths can come later.
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