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Interview with Mónica Rojas, researcher from the BIOART group (CREB) at the UPC

Interview with Mónica Rojas, researcher from the Biosignal Analysis for Rehabilitation and Therapy (BIOART) group, Biomedical Engineering Research Centre (CREB) at the UPC

What is the HybridNeuro project and what is its main objective? Who is taking part?

The HybridNeuro project is a European Union Twinning action, focused on boosting the capacities of the University of Maribor (Slovenia) in relation to the proposal and execution of research projects in the area of motor rehabilitation and neuromuscular disorders, technology transfer and the exploitation of research results. It is based on the experience of three leading institutions in the field of Neurorehabilitation in the EU: the UPC (Spain), Imperial College London (United Kingdom) and the University of Chalmers (Sweden). These centres are widely recognised for their contributions to the extraction of neural control for voluntary movement control, whether based on EMG signals (that is, electromyography, which analyses muscle activity), or EEG (electroencephalography, that is, a kind of study that measures brain activity). The idea is to combine knowledge in these two areas, hence the name HybridNeuro, to strengthen applications in motor rehabilitation, sports, ergonomics, etc. The CIT UPC Technology Center is participating in addition to these three institutions.

What is BIOART working on in this project?

The extraction of neural information associated with the planning and execution of voluntary movement, in healthy subjects and in patients with neuromuscular disorders.

Which technologies are used or being developed for HybridNeuro?

Methods for analysing brain connectivity, inverse modelling of this activity to find the sources (that is, where activity is generated in the brain), extraction of neural indices, HD-EMG signal processing, extraction of indices and correlations with EEG.

In which other research areas are you working?

Closely related to the project, we are also working on the field of multichannel EMG signal analysis for applications in motor rehabilitation. Currently, we are developing a versatile system that will enable monitoring of muscle activity in patients with motor disorders. The idea is to empower patients in the rehabilitation process and to enable doctors to monitor this process using quantitative indices as a basis. We are working on increasing the system’s TRL (Technological Readiness Level, that is, its level of technological maturity) to market it. We also have other research lines focused on the respiratory system that are focused on mechanical ventilation.

What applications could the technologies that you are developing have? How will they change or contribute to changing the life of people in the present and the future?

The technologies that we develop are focused on supporting rehabilitation processes for neurological, motor and respiratory disorders. We hope that with our tools we can help to improve and/or personalise therapies for treating these patients and, ultimately, improve their quality of life.

Science and technology and women. What should we continue to do to achieve real equality in areas such as that in which you work? How can greater numbers of talented women be attracted? Have you detected bias in studies carried out in the HybridNeuro project to date?

I think that a lot of progress has been made, particularly in the area of engineering. When I was a student (of bachelor’s and doctoral degrees), women were clearly in the minority. Now I am surprised that in some subjects there are more women than men, which is clear evidence that a change is coming about. This trend is clearer in some of the engineering subjects but is not the case in others, and that is where greater effort must be made. Perhaps certain knowledge areas need to be identified in which there is still a lot of inequality so that specific strategies can be designed. In terms of attracting female talent, in my opinion, this is a task that should be done from a very early age. We need to awaken the scientific spirit in girls (and in boys too, of course) so that this talent ends up reaching the academic and scientific community. I suppose this also involves offering better salaries and greater flexibility, so that work can be combined with family life. Today, the reality is that there are still many women who are heads of families who cannot access regular conditions in either of these two aspects.

Mónica Rojas Martínez is a researcher for the Biosignal Analysis for Rehabilitation and Therapy (BIOART) group, Biomedical Engineering Research Centre (CREB) at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech (UPC). She graduated in 1999 as an Electrical Engineer from the University of the Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Subsequently, she was a doctoral degree candidate at the UPC with a thesis on the design of protocols and analysis of EMG signals (electromyography) as diagnostic tools and for rehabilitation therapies for the upper limbs. Currently, she is a member of the UPC team that coordinates the HybridNeuro European research project. The aim of the project is to establish a new way of analysing the motor system and human skeletal muscle movements, and to transfer academic research to clinical practice and industry.