Duygu Kuzum, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha, Senior Writer, Qualcomm Institute
At birth, the brain is full of potential. The mind grows and learns, weaving new connections that can grow stronger or weaker, or even repair themselves over time. It filters out background noise and distractions when it desires focus, and can instantly recognize familiar faces and objects, even in different settings.
Duygu Kuzum, an assistant professor in UC San Diego’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department, says this is how she would like computers to be — adaptive, flexible and effective. Her lab is taking inspiration directly from the brain to create more efficient, less energy-hungry computers and electronic brain interfaces that could advance our understanding of brain functions and neural disorders.
Kuzum heads the ECE Department’s Neuroelectronics Group, a small team of students and visiting researchers working at the intersection of neuroscience and electrical engineering. Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, Kuzum’s interest in science began in childhood. She remembers breaking apart her toys and trying to repair them out of sheer curiosity about their inner mechanisms. Once, she tried to manipulate plastics and toy parts into a device that would let her listen to a heartbeat better.
“It didn’t work, in the end,” she said, laughing.
Kuzum’s future endeavors were more promising. After completing her undergraduate degree in Ankara, she pursued a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University and a postdoctoral fellowship in Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2014, she was included in the MIT Technology Review’s “Innovators under 35,” and four years later, both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation recognized her with awards.
The research that has been the driving force behind these honors is at the forefront of Kuzum’s current work. When she made the switch to neuroelectronics, she was in the process of developing faster, better-performing transistors and becoming increasingly aware that the technology would soon reach its limit. She looked for inspiration elsewhere.
“In life, what type of computations do we perform? The brain is also a computer, but it’s very different from a digital computer. The major difference is that electronic computers are rigid, fixed; they are designed around principles and you do not really reconfigure them,” said Kuzum.
Brains, on the other hand, are generally more adaptive and energy-efficient than digital computers, and more tolerant of ambiguity. Brains store and process information in one location, whereas digital computers expend valuable energy shuttling data from storage to their processing centers. Computers can also only form binary “on” or “off” connections, while brains build synapses that can range in strength, like having multiple channels set at different volumes. Kuzum and her team hope that by redesigning electronic networks to mimic neural networks, they can contribute not only to “smarter” computers, but to a more nuanced and in-depth understanding of the very organ that inspires them.
For instance, Kuzum’s technology could one day help scientists and doctors identify the exact connections that misfire during a seizure. Today’s methods of locating these errors typically offer a look at a single neuron. In a system as vast and interconnected as the brain, this provides a mere snapshot of a much larger situation. Yet with a tiny, transparent neural implant from Kuzum’s team, researchers could record the brain’s electrical activity and image hundreds to thousands of neurons simultaneously. Such insight could eventually advance treatments and even cures for neural disorders like epilepsy.
“As an engineer, what I really care about is making, breaking, and fixing things and doing something really useful,” said Kuzum. Her proudest accomplishment to date is not winning a prestigious award, but pioneering the work that could aid her fellow human beings and bring light to one of the body’s most mysterious organs.