Garrett B. Stanley, PhD, is a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University researching sensory pathways of the brain, has been at the forefront of an upcoming neuroscience boom. We at the Pioneer decided to interview him and learn more about his passion.
Q: You started as a Mechanical Engineer – you even got a PhD for it. What made you passionate about neuroscience?
A: I was an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech. I was a mechanical engineer at the time and didn’t know anything about biology. When I went to Berkeley for grad school, I was studying control theory, but I serendipitously starting working in a cardiovascular physiology lab and started taking courses in physiology. I learned how the body operates under a lot of different conditions and how it reacts in various ways with the outside world, and I realized that the body, especially the brain, is the ultimate control system, so I continued to study it.
Q: By discovering how we see and feel, some may say you are discovering the essence of self. Do you find something philosophical with your work?
A: As an engineer, I didn’t realize that I was getting into a field that was so philosophical. You start to think about what makes us human and how we interact with the world. I think there are inherent philosophical questions. Patterns of activity in the brain are a code of sorts, and we have yet to understand how they represent senses such as seeing a face or hearing our name called. The ultimate question is, ‘What is that code?’ One thing we can do as engineers and scientists is try to understand this code and how it defines our thoughts and actions.
Q: How will your research affect our everyday lives?
A: One thing to know is that unlike those of a lot of other organs in the body, diseases and disorders of the brain and the nervous system are incurable. Any disorder one can think of – Parkinson’s disease, Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and so on – have some kind of treatment., mostly involving drugs that are not very effective. As we are looking at a growing senior population, this becomes a huge problem.
Aberrant firing in the neurons impacts a lot of these disorders. Neurons are about push and pull. Think of a car. Some neurons accelerate and some neurons break. When these disorders occur, the acceleration and braking of these neurons get unbalanced, and you essentially have electrical car crashes in the brain. Hopefully the kind of research we do, what I refer to as learning to read the neural code, can extend to writing the neural code, and we can find a way to counteract these imbalances. This would be the key to solving a lot of these disorders, including even the loss of senses.
Q: What academic path would you recommend for somebody who wants to make developments in the field of neural engineering?
A: It’s a field heavily involved in both medicine and technology. There is a massive technology explosion right now in neuroscience. I think that the people who are going to be the cutting edge of all this will be well versed in both sides; biomedical engineering does a good job of creating synergy between the two fields.
Q: Do you have other passions besides neuroscience and engineering?
A: I like to cook bacon, curing and smoking the meat. It’s fun and has a science to it. As a hands-on person, I like to build things, like doing woodworking projects with my son.
Q: What inspired you to grow such a bodacious beard?
A: Currently I’m doing research into the whiskers of lab rats. Having my own whiskers is a way for me to recognize the wealth of information these rats have contributed.