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Helen Saad: The Poetry of Networks

1 February 2013

Helen Saad waxes poetic when she explains why she became interested in brain research. "The smell of a flower, the memory of the walk in the park, the planning of a trip... These experiences are made possible by the three pounds of tissue in our heads," she said.

But Saad is not a poet. Although she has a bachelor's degree in computer engineering and held managerial positions in multinational companies, the mysteries of the brain's communication network fascinated her more than the vagaries of computer networks.

WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE A SINGLE NEURON

In her native Lebanon, the neural engineering that captured Saad's imagination was not yet well developed, and she felt like "a single neuron isolated in a petri dish." So she applied for a Fulbright Science and Technology Award to study neural engineering in the United States and became the first Lebanese citizen to receive one. Her hometown of Hammana on Mount Lebanon celebrated her achievement with a reception in her honor.

The Fulbright Award is enabling Saad to pursue her doctoral degree at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), performing research on the rules that govern how signals and information are transmitted through a neuronal network. The ultimate goal of her research is to help find biotechnology cures for brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. In professor Gabriel Silva's bioengineering lab, Saad conducts research on the role of dendrites, threadlike extensions of neurons, in shaping the behavior of neuronal networks.

Ever the poet, Saad said the Fulbright Award has allowed her to "sprout dendrites and connections to neighboring neurons," or to fellow scientists, and form with them "a complex and powerful network." She is forming other connections as well, and is involved in mentoring future entrepreneurs and organizing a business plan competition at UCSD.

Saad plans to establish the first bioengineering research center and related business park in Lebanon when she returns to her country. She wants to help create a first-class nonprofit, nonsectarian research facility and to stimulate science-based entrepreneurship. Using her cross-cultural experience, Saad also hopes to help people in Lebanon to transcend ethnic, religious and political boundaries.

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Neuron: A type of cell that receives and sends messages from the body to the brain and back to the body. The messages are sent by an electrical current.

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