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Ziv Lautman wearing a mask and gloves while working with a microscope

Ziv Lautman

MS candidate ’21
#IAmAnEngineer: I’ve always loved learning. I studied environmental engineering and eventually started a company in the environmental space, but ultimately, I really wanted to go back and do something related to human health.

Through a coincidence, I met Prof. Adam de la Zerda from the department of structural biology at Stanford, and his research fascinated me. I decided it was time for me to move on and join his lab, making a tremendous shift into bioengineering. Everything — neuroscience, the brain, optics, and all the engineering principles behind it — was completely new to me. After years in the business world, I had to go back to coding, catching up on the latest machine learning algorithms. There are so many new methods and a new language to learn.

I’m currently working on an imaging modality called Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT); you can think about it as a merge between ultrasound and a light microscope. I use it to look directly into the brain at the very high resolution of a single neuron cell. My goal is to explore cellular changes that occur during various brain-related diseases, and to be able to use the engineering principles of this technique to try and read the brain’s activity and interpret it.

What really drives me, and why I fell in love with research, is its potential impact. Neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide and the second leading cause of death worldwide. For many brain-related diseases, this process gives us our first view of what’s really happening — in real time — on a cellular level, and this work could shed some light on how diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and brain cancers like glioblastoma develop. If we can really understand that from the cellular level, we’ll be able to develop treatments that could help cure these diseases. These are really exciting times in the life science discipline; I believe we’re truly on the verge of a defining moment between biology and technology.

To me, being an engineer is having the ability to design and build something while understanding the underlying principle of it — the physics, the chemistry, the biology and even the software. You have the tools to first simulate or calculate its feasibility, and with that knowledge you can transform a new idea into reality based on a scientific set of rules. That has always astonished me, and it’s why I love engineering.

There are so many fascinating challenges in science today, especially now during COVID. I encourage every engineer, as well as people with a passion for science, to look for labs or areas of interest and join academic research. There’s a lot of brain power that can be useful here, and there are so many critical things humanity needs to solve.

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