"Learn from anyone who is willing to teach you”

Silvestro Micera, a neuroengineer in EPFL's School of Engineering - 2024 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Silvestro Micera, a neuroengineer in EPFL's School of Engineering - 2024 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Silvestro Micera is bringing the science fiction of bionics to reality, engineering prosthetics that provide sensory feedback to the user through the nervous system. Inspired by TV shows and movies as a child, he seeks to help restore function in people faced with health challenges.

Silvestro Micera remembers thinking as a child, as he watched the movie character Luke Skywalker get a replacement bionic hand, “I want to be the engineer that builds that hand!” Micera continues, “I also saw The Six Million Dollar Man, and I remember there was a guy who said ‘We can rebuild him; we have the technology’. I wanted to be that guy too. Then I saw an interview on TV with Italian scientist Vincenzo Genovese, at Scuola Sant’Anna in Pisa, talking about mobile robotics for helping the disabled. I liked the guy. That’s when I decided to pursue my university studies in Pisa.”

Inspired by blockbuster science fiction, including Star Wars, The Six Million Dollar Man, Iron Man and ‘all of the marvel comics’, Micera knew from an early age, growing up in a small town of Talsano on the outskirts of Taranto in Italy, that he wanted to build bionic limbs. Today, he is a world-renowned researcher in neural engineering at EPFL.

In 2014, he and his colleagues published the very first peer-reviewed clinical trial that provided real-time sensory feedback – via an augmented prosthetic hand – to an amputee. He continues to pioneer research in sensory feedback, and just last year showed that sensory information about temperature could be felt in the phantom hand of amputees. With many projects underway, long-term clinical trials and experiments to interface the nervous system in the hopes of treating many debilitating diseases, Micera continues to innovate, translating neural engineering into a clinical setting.

From electrical to neural engineering

Micera knew at the age of 15 that biomedical engineering was the correct course of action, but there were no such courses in Italy at the time. He settled on electrical engineering, initially wanting to go to Torino or Milan. But his parents, a medical doctor and a school teacher, felt that it was too far away from home. “They convinced me to stay near Pisa, closer to home where a trusted family friend could help out in case of an emergency,” continues Micera. “All of the pieces fell into place when I saw Vincenzo on TV.”

Hence began Micera’s academic journey at the University of Pisa at almost 18 years old, a story filled with curiosity, determination and fond memories of mentorship along the way. In his third year, he had the opportunity get back on track and pursue a minor in biomedical engineering. Micera remembers a pivotal moment, “We were at a summer school for Italian bioengineers. At that meeting, we were discussing the proceedings, in particular a chapter on bio inspired robotics written by Vincenzo Tagliasco, a brilliant professor, a pioneer in the field. I read the chapter and went to Danilo de Rossi, my master’s professor at the time, explaining to him that’s what I wanted to do for my Master’s thesis. That’s when Danilo suggested that I work with Paolo Dario, at Scuola Sant’Anna, to pursue these interests.”

During these formative years at Scuola Sant’Anna, under the supervision of Dario, began efforts to design and build electrodes that communicate with the nervous system to help disabled people, first in animal models, then in clinical trials. In 1998, Micera began managing the European GRIP project, an integrated system for the neuroelectric control of grasp in disabled people. He was a visiting researcher during his PhD at the Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction at Aalborg University in Denmark. At the end of his PhD, he became assistant professor at Scuola Sant’Anna. Still motivated to broaden horizons, Micera set his sights on working with the founder of the Neuroscience Department at MIT, Emilio Bizzi. To this end, Micera obtained a Fulbright grant and moved to Boston in 2007. Afterwards, Micera led the Translational Neural Engineering Group at ETH Zürich in 2008 before coming to EPFL in 2012. “I came to EPFL because of the possibility to develop interdisciplinary projects with talented researchers from different faculties,” says Micera. “EPFL’s new interdisciplinary center Neuro-X is a perfect example of this.”

A career full of learning and mentorship

“I have had many collaborators, and all of them have played a crucial role in my career,” Micera says. “My first supervisor Angelo Sabatini taught me how to write a scientific paper. I am still learning how to write and how to publish in high impact journals from contemporaries like EPFL colleague Gregoire Courtine. From Paolo, I learned how to manage large labs, how to get funding, how to submit research proposals.”

“Two people really changed my career,” continues Micera. “Emilio Bizzi, who created the MIT Neuroscience Department decades ago, shared with me his incredibly innovative and interdisciplinary vision about neuroscience. Manfred Morari, my boss at ETH Zürich, helped me reconstruct my CV, but more importantly, he showed me by example what it means to be a great professor at an institution like ETH. He was very sharp, organizing everything, from the future of his students, the future of the group, to political interactions with stakeholders. It was an inspiration just observing him. He was respected as a professor, as a colleague and as a fellow staff member.”

“Before retirement, Manfred politely recommended ‘to keep in mind that you will be forgotten, so don’t let your ego get in the way.’”

For the engineer pursuing a career in academia, Micera has his own words of advice, “Walt Witman wrote: ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ In essence, follow your path as much as you possibly can, be humble, nurture your curiosity and learn as much as possible from anyone who is willing to teach you.”

Author: Hillary Sanctuary

Source: People

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