While developments in science and technology often appear in news headlines or take place in a lab seemingly a world away, many examples of innovation can also be seen here on campus. Two members of the University community were recognized for their contributions to the science community in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List earlier this week, both with somewhat unorthodox paths to their accomplishments.
The brain may not differ too greatly from an electrical circuit, according to Rackham student Matt Gaidica, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate. Gaidica’s previous formal education in electrical engineering inspired him to view the brain in a new light, guiding his current study in neuroscience.
Surrounded by companies like Google and Apple in the hills of San Francisco, Gaidica and his best friend quickly joined the innovative startup culture associated with the Bay Area. After receiving an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University, Gaidica co-founded a small software company called Landr, which developed an application that altered media to make it work on all devices. Through this experience, he gained experience in image analysis and software, as the application pioneered innovative techniques for viewing media on mobile devices. He and his partner took the business to Silicon Valley, where it evolved into a technology that is now built into other products used by CNN, Craigslist, Airbnb, NHL and the U.S. Army.
Following the sale of Landr, Gaidica began working on another startup — Syllabuster — which focused on providing students with more information about their courses and connections within the class. However, Gaidica resigned shortly after from Syllabuster due to feeling like he wasn’t contributing to society in a way he wanted.
With the Pacific Ocean and rising mountains growing smaller in his rearview mirror, Gaidica drove back to Michigan to begin the next chapter of his life. As an electrical engineer and coder, he shifted gears, pondering the functions of a kind of circuit that existed before the development of today’s high-tech innovations: the brain.
“I wasn’t solving the world’s problems, and I wanted to be closer,” Gaidica said. “I had talked about the brain much before at this TEDxFlint talk, and it makes a lot of sense for an electrical engineer. The brain runs on electricity, and so it kind of just became this problem that I really wanted to get into.”
Gaidica spent the next year traveling and writing a book about our brain’s asymmetries, “Left: A History of the Hemispheres.” In his research, he documented the history and science of the left and right sides of the brain and explored the question of why individuals are right- or left-handed.
“This is a really interesting question, not only in humans, but through evolution,” Gaidica said. “It’s really kind of a mysterious thing.”
Though Gaidica has a background in engineering, image processing, software and hardware, he said studying brain asymmetries allowed him to begin using an engineering approach to study neuroscience.
Despite his unconventional path to the subject, Gaidica is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience and conducts Parkinson’s disease research at the University, also working as a graduate student instructor. Gaidica uses his coding and engineering skills to design 3D printed devices and circuit boards, as well as write software to analyze the data coming out of brain imaging and neural recordings.
“If we can understand the circuit behind it and what’s changing in the circuit, that then leads us to the therapies and the drugs, and the interventions, the surgeries,” Gaidica said.
Forbes described Gaidica’s path as “eclectic,” recognizing his hard work and diverse achievements. Though he appreciated the praise, Gaidica emphasized it just means he has to continue working hard to prove himself worthy.
“These recognitions are great, and they’re useful tools to help motivate you,” Gaidica said. “But it doesn’t make the work any easier. It doesn’t change the number of hours that you have to put in, and that’s the stuff that I enjoy.”
Inspired by the efficient use of solar energy, postdoctoral research fellow Andrej Lenert is working to explore clean energy.
Lenert attended the University of Iowa as an undergraduate, receiving a degree in mechanical engineering. Following graduation, he then went on to obtain a master’s degree and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although he launched his educational career with a more traditional mechanical engineering curriculum, he said the program became more interdisciplinary as he continued his graduate studies.
Currently, Lenert is a postdoctoral researcher at the University, working with the Nanoscale Transport Lab. There, he studies energy transport across small-length scales and materials with structures on the nanometer scale.
The research he conducted for his Ph.D. paved the way for his work at the University. At MIT, part of his research focused on combining solar-thermal and photovoltaic systems to reduce waste.
“I really kind of identified the biggest bottleneck in terms of efficiency in that technology,” Lenert said. “And that was conversion of heat as thermal radiation into electricity.
As a student, Lenert found himself drawn to topics involving energy, utilization and environmental engineering. He said his motivation to pursue mechanical engineering stemmed from his interests in solving problems related to clean energy.
Noting the importance of clean energy and the contemporary challenges of global warming, he said the most fascinating aspect of clean energy is the way it bridges complex and interdisciplinary topics in science.
“It starts off with the solar system. How we get sunlight as our natural resource really depends on the solar system and the nature of our earth rotating,” Lenert said. “And the length-scales shrink all the way down to the atomic level where we’re trying to engineer materials that have new properties or have new functionality. Then, there’s everything in between.”
Lenert is now applying to faculty positions, hoping to mentor aspiring scientists and continue to contribute to the science community through his research and discoveries.