Associate Professor Andrew Zalesky named one of Australia’s 30 most innovative by Engineers Australia

As told to Prue Gildea

Andrew Zalesky standing next to MRI

Engineers Australia magazine, Create, recognised two Melbourne School of Engineering academics amongst the top 30 most innovative. Here, Associate Professor Andrew Zalesky reflects upon this honour.

Congratulations on your award – how do you feel to be recognised this way?
It’s certainly an honour to be voted one of Australia’s most innovative engineers! I am grateful for the recognition that I have received for my work. I am particularly indebted to the many colleagues and students in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre who have shaped my thinking about brain networks and supported my research.

What do you think makes your work innovative?
In a nutshell, I study the brain as a system of interacting elements. My team aims to understand why, how and when these interactions breakdown or fail to develop properly in people with mental illness. Our goal is use this knowledge to engineer improved treatments for serious psychiatric disorders. This is an important goal because the prognosis for individuals with mental illness is often bleak and the treatment options are often very limited.

My team aims to understand why, how and when these interactions [between systems in the brain] breakdown or fail to develop properly in people with mental illness. Our goal is use this knowledge to engineer improved treatments for serious psychiatric disorders.

I am an Electrical Engineer by training. My PhD focused on developing mathematical models to evaluate the performance of optical telecommunications network. After completing my PhD, I began applying my expertise in engineered networks to understand brain networks in neuropsychiatric disorders. That was a huge change in research direction!

The innovation in my work is that I have established novel links between brain networks and engineered networks, which has led to new insights into brain organization in health and disease as well as novel tools to analyse brain imaging data. It turns out that the principles describing the organization of biological and engineered networks are strikingly similar. With some translation, engineering principles can be used to successfully understand, control and potentially repair brain networks.

Did you always envisage becoming a researcher?
No – not at all, least of all a researcher in neuroscience and biomedical engineering! Even during my PhD, I would have never envisaged that I would be collaborating with neuroscientists and psychiatrists in the future. I imagined that I would most likely work within a telco or industry.

Do you enjoy the interdisciplinarity of your work?
Absolutely! Interdisciplinarity and cross-faculty engagement are essential in my field and most areas of biomedical engineering more generally. Australia has lagged somewhat in overcoming barriers to collaboration across academic disciplines, but things are changing rapidly. My work has involved bringing together engineers and psychiatrists in the context of collaborative projects, funding applications and cross-faculty student supervision. Overcoming barriers between Medicine and Engineering is crucial to meet the demands of the changing landscape of biomedical research.

Researcher using equipment

What is your next challenge – what do you want to discover, prove or address?
We now have technology to localize brain network pathology to specific brain circuits and regions with modest accuracy. The next goal is to engineer new and improved treatments to repair these malfunctioning circuits and hopefully improve the outcomes for people with serious mental disorders. A promising therapy that we are currently trialling involves stimulating specific brain circuits using magnetic fields. While this therapy is not entirely new, we hope to improve its effectiveness by personalising the brain circuits that are targeted to suit a patient’s brain network. These therapies are sometimes referred to as electric medicine.

What do you think careers of the future will look like in your field?
It’s hard to tell. From a research standpoint, I think that current boundaries between academic disciplines and departments will become blurred and primarily remain to serve administrative and teaching purposes. But that is a long way off.  Neuroscientists will probably need to become well versed in computational and numerical methods. The need to communicate findings to the public and demonstrate societal impact is likely to become more important. It sure is an exciting time for the next generation of brain researchers! However, it can be challenging for students and new researchers to gain a foothold in the field, given the breadth of knowledge required and the need to embrace technology at multiple scales.