Dr. Polina Anikeeva, is all things fascinating from being a passionate neural engineer to handing out tests inspired by comic book characters for her students at MIT. She is currently an associate professor in the Materials Science & Engineering department at MIT. She recently won the 2018 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. I had a chance to sit down for a brief chat about her journey as a leading researcher. Also google her amazing work on quantum dots LEDs!
“I have never had easy successes” -Dr. Anikeeva
Poornima Peiris: Tell me about the research that you are currently working on?
Dr. Polina Anikeeva: My research consists of 2 components, one is an electrical component and the other is a magnetic component. The magnetic component is motivated by a simple factor to modulate neural activity without the actual hardware. In order to achieve this a field is needed that can penetrate deep into the body without being attenuated and at the same time can interact with the biology with the help of a transducer that can convert this into something the body can then distribute. A magnetic field is very convenient because our body does not interact with fields of such low magnitude (not referring to MRI fields) and goes unattenuated indicating a very good signal. In connection with our research, neurons understand, and senses heat and we require something that can convert magnetic fields into heat. This idea has been worked on previously in relationship to cancer research using magnetic nanoparticles.
Magnetic nanoparticles contain a magnetic moment and will orient with the direction of a magnetic field and if we switch the direction of the magnetic field, the moment will also try to switch and needs to overcome an energy barrier & this energy spent overcoming the barrier get dissipated as heat in which more cycles of this process lead to further heat dissipation. This principle of magnetic hyperthermia has been used in field of cancer research to burn tumors but for our purpose we engineered our nanoparticles to be very efficient so that they would dissipate heat very fast. We then used that method to modulate neuronal activity & the magnetic field can excite neurons in the presence of heat dissipating particles.
You can further find more information about her research through her TED talk
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Peiris: What are the expectations for next steps in your research?
Dr. Anikeeva: I think seeing advances in materials that can match properties of the nervous system to address the signaling complexity to interface with the nervous system will be very important. In terms of my research, I do hope it will allow to do experiments that were not possible earlier and be able to access information about the nervous system that were previously inaccessible. I am very excited to push the frontier and perhaps taking my technology to be approved by the FDA in the future.
Peiris: Can you tell me a little bit about your STEM journey?
Dr. Anikeeva: I was lucky to get into a very selective math & science magnate school while living in Russia. I was interested in applications and hands on problems and went into a physics program at St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. I attended a seminar during my freshman year where I ended up meeting my mentor, Dr. Tatiana Birshtein, known to many as mother of polymer physics. She always encouraged me to go to conferences and workshops since the opportunities in Russia were limited. During my senior year of college in Switzerland doing research in NMR while also being enrolled at my home university. While there, I applied for an internship in Los Alamos National Lab. They assigned me a project on solar cells and I suffered terribly because I did not know much about the subject matter then. I had to learn everything about spectroscopy and quantum dots on my own. While there I applied for graduate school here in United States was accepted to a PhD program at MIT. During my postdoc, people encouraged me to apply as an assistant professor to MIT, where I am currently serving as a professor.
Peiris: What led you to Neuroscience?
Dr. Anikeeva: I am not interested in just improving things, I want to work on innovative ideas. Biology provided this wild frontier with room for great improvement in technological advance. I wanted to do a postdoc in Neuroscience because there were applications with voltage and as someone with an electronics background this was compatible with my interests. I applied to Dr. Karl Deisseroth’s Lab at Stanford University. He was a pretty adventurous mentor and hired me without any prior expertise in molecular biology techniques. In exchange for me fixing the lasers in the lab, the group taught me how to do animal surgery, electrophysiology and taught me neuroscience through their immersive conversations. It was really love at first sight, when I saw a rat with optical cables coming out of his head.
Peiris: What experience have you had with failure during your career?
Dr. Anikeeva: I never think about big failures because I have never had easy successes. Most of my papers and grants get rejected until they are good enough to be accepted. Failure is a lifestyle at this point & everything I do comes with a lot of work & effort. I experienced 2 crashing cycles of failure when I first started high school and I was struggling, however for the first time I felt like I was in the right place. The other moment of failure came during my time at Los Alamos when I had to make devices and had a very limited device design knowledge. First year was just trial and error and most of my devices failed. Because of this experience when I started working during graduate school, I was a pretty good experimentalist because I had learned so much from my failures.
Peiris: What kind of discrimination have you faced as a woman in stem?
Dr. Anikeeva: While I was at a conference, and I was already at MIT, a male colleague asked me to come work for him as a postdoc, not considering the amount of experience and work I have so far. One time, I was at a summit in my area of research and out of 150 people there were only 5 female faculty. Over the years, I have trained mostly female postdocs. I have also seen a change however with the drive of new faces in this field due to the brain initiative.
Peiris: What advice do you have for women in stem?
Dr. Anikeeva: My biggest piece of advice is never apologizing for your gender as in going after the correct opportunities. You will get zero grants that you never applied for as well as zero jobs that you never applied for. Think of everything as a choice, rather than a sacrifice.
Breaking New Ground In Neural Technology: Dr. Polina Anikeeva