Featured Engineer

Interview with Dr Patrick Degenaar

Dr Patrick Degenaar

Interview with Dr Patrick Degenaar - Electronic Engineer and Reader in Neuroprosthesis

Can you give us a little background about yourself?

Although I’m Dutch, I studied high school in the UK but went back to do military service before attending university. I then actually studied a Physics degree first (Liverpool University), followed by a MSc in Surface Science. I then changed gear, worked for the medical devices industry before being pulled off to Japan to do a PhD in bioelectronics at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. I then went to work in the software industry for a while before doing post-docs in Imperial College, where I got a fellowship and lectureship. I moved to Newcastle in 2010 where I am a Reader (associate professor) in Biomedical Engineering.

Out of many fields of expertise to choose from, why Engineering?

I like to build things and would like to see people walking around someday with therapeutic devices which have been developed as a result of my efforts.

Can you please tell us a slight background about “Optogenetic Retinal Prosthesis” on the current project that you worked on?

Researchers have been exploring electronic devices that could bring back sight to the blind since 1929. However, it has proved extremely challenging for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one of the greatest discoveries in the bionics field happened a decade ago when biologists working on a plant protein discovered a way to make nerve cells light sensitive.

Do you have any noteworthy engineering experiences?

I can’t think of a single Eureka moment. Big problems that have taken lots of effort seem surprisingly obvious and trivial once they are solved. But I would like to comment on interdisciplinary working that is prevalent in the biomedical area. There are so many parameters especially in biology, so we have to make assumptions on some while working on others. Sometimes, I’ve got these educated guesses entirely wrong and in once case after a couple of year’s work Sorry, I cannot divulge details, but that made me feel really silly. But other times, I’ve felt on top of the world.

What is the trickiest bug you have fixed?

Creating a suprbright, superefficient microLED which can be used for biomedical prosthesis. I’ve got basic devices working, but there is a still plenty of work to be done.

Aside on engineering books, what else do you read?

I find it challenging with my work and a young family to find time to read novels. Though in the past I have enjoyed science fiction – William Gibson, Isaac Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson. Perhaps my greatest passion outside engineering is history. So I do like to read books and articles to understand the socio-economic and technological/resource reasons behind key events in the past. The War and Society book series by Anderson exploring events from the eye’s of common people was fascinating in this area. In my lectures I like to give a snippets of the lives of the great engineers and scientists behind the theories.

You have profusely of publications, which among of these you feel so excited?

A lot of my funding and impact derives from a paper in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

Multi-site optical excitation using ChR2 and micro-LED array. Journal of Neural Engineering 2010, 7(1), 016004.

We were the first group to show that micro-LEDs could be used to stimulate optogenetically encoded nerve cells.

How do you spend your free time?

Academic working hours are long, but I try to keep weekends free. I now find myself having a second childhood with my 3 year old son. So we spend a lot of time in playgrounds or watching cartoons together. I of course try where I can to lodge scientific ideas into his head, but suspect he will do something entirely different to his father.

Do you believe this quote “Engineers like to solve problems. If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own problems.”

Not quite. There are two types of engineers:
1. Those that create solutions for which there is probably no current problem
2. Those that create solutions for current problems.

The Type 1 engineer is blue sky and will develop a field of interest. Type 2 is translational and will search for problems to solve utilizing the best methods that currently exist. Both are important and Type 1 often feeds solutions to Type 2.

Personally I largely Type 2 and collaborate with many Type 1 engineers to provide me with latest state of the art solutions.

In the next few years what direction do you see yourself?

I will maintain interest in retinal prosthesis, but I will have a large focus on epilepsy. I am part of a £10M project (http://www.cando.ac.uk) to develop a next generation optoelectronic brain implant for people with focal forms of epilepsy.

As a professor, what words of encouragement you give to your students?

It depends on the student. I generally like having friendly conversations and getting them to see particular topics in a new light. I will also show displeasure if I think a student is wasting his/her and my time. The key thing is to treat people as individuals and dedicate discussions to their needs.

Is there anything you’d like to say to young people to encourage them to pursue Engineering?

I would say two things:
Engineering involves thinking about and solving high level problems. As such it is both worthwhile and rewarding. Industrial Engineering is also perhaps surprisingly well suited to women. Although a minority in this country, if we look to the Middle East, in many software and electronics engineering courses, the majority of students are female..

I can’t speak in detail about other subjects. With climate change, water, and energy being key worldwide problems, there is plenty to solve. But in Electronic engineering in particular, now is perhaps the best time to be an electronic engineer. The whole nature of computing platforms is changing radically for the first time since the 1980’s. From single processors to networks on chip. From causal stable digital transistors to quantum statistics, the field is ripe for new thinking. This makes it both challenging and fruitful.

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