Joey Salatino, a Neuroscience undergraduate, is dual-enrolled in an accelerated BS/PhD program at Michigan State University. He is pursuing a B.S in Neuroscience and is also enrolled as a graduate student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He intends to pursue a career developing bioengineering-based approaches for integrating microelectrode arrays at the tissue-device interface, as well as translating and commercializing new neuroprosthetics technology into the clinic.
Joey arrived at MSU his sophomore year after transferring from Western Michigan University. Even though he came in as a Philosophy major, he found his home in the Neuroscience Program, where he fell in love with research and outreach activities. Following his arrival, Joey was inducted into the Honors College, was a Resident Assistant for two years, cofounded the Biomedical Engineering Society chapter at MSU, tutored Organic Chemistry as an e-board member of Spartan Supplemental Instruction, heard cases for student misconduct as a member of the University Hearing Board, and held extensive educational outreach programming as the President of the Neuroscience Outreach Committee.
Now, Joey is the first PhD student in MSU’s new Department of Biomedical Engineering and a Graduate Research Assistant in Dr. Erin Purcell's Regenerative Electrode Interface Lab, where he is using cutting-edge electrophysiological techniques to characterize the integration of microelectrode arrays with the nervous tissue at the device-interface, as well as developing genetic engineering approaches to improve the longevity and functional capacity of implanted neuroprostheses.
Joey is also an active entrepreneur and manages his Company (“Michigan Neuromedical Technologies, LLC”) and its research team for the development of his invented medical device: a neuroprosthesis to regulate acetylcholine in vivo, for potential treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. He and his team developed a proof-of-principle for this device in the research labs of Dr. Galligan and Dr. Swain at MSU, and his company won $1000 for the “most creative/original idea” at the 2015 Michigan GreenLight Business Model Competition.
What steps did you take as an undergrad/graduate student to get to where you are?
The most important decision I made was to push myself academically and professionally in order to identify my potential, and that included getting involved with both extracurricular organizations and research. My first year here, I became a Resident Assistant to in order to develop leadership skills. As a Resident Assistant, I had to develop my communication skills to be comfortable while interacting with individual students or in a large team, and I also carried considerable responsibility for their safety, education, and overall wellbeing. From there, I co-founded the MSU Biomedical Engineering Society to build on that leadership experience, where I saw the potential for a larger, more relevant impact with my involvement. I found my passion in the educational outreach events with the Neuroscience Club and I subsequently became President of the Outreach Committee, conceived of and led the first chapter of the MSU Neuroscience Summer Camp in 2015. I have to add that this outreach could not have happened without the help of Dr. Taylor and Dr. Henley – they were a major driving force behind my ambition with running these programs, and they opened up doors for me administratively to make the Summer Camp and others become a possibility.
When I first switched to Neuroscience my sophomore year, I reached out to my course professor to express my interest in his research. I gained my first experience in a neuroscience research lab for those next 8 months. After that, I took a Neural Engineering Course the Fall of my Junior year and that’s when everything clicked. I knew that Neural Engineering was the field I would spend the rest of my life exploring, and, notably, two milestones resulted from that course. First, I formed a company (“Michigan Neuromedical Technologies, LLC”) and began developing the neuroprosthesis that I had conceived of as part of the course project. Second, I joined Dr. Erin Purcell’s lab that Spring during its establishment and immediately fell in love with the research. Her lab is interested in characterizing the electrical properties of neurons surrounding neural prostheses implanted in the brain, with the goal of developing regenerative interfaces for integrating these microelectrode arrays with the surrounding brain tissue through the incorporation of genetic engineering principles. In the clinic, these devices offer incredible potential for treating neurodegenerative conditions, as well as for providing an opportunity to control assistive devices for those suffering from movement deficits (e.g., paralysis and amputation). In the lab, these devices provide a unique avenue for dissecting neural circuitry in the brain, which can accelerate our exploration of the nervous system, as well as expose relevant circuitry for treating intractable neurological diseases. As next-generation tools, providing a means for integrating these devices with the brain will be of paramount importance for unlocking their full clinical and research potential. This is where I find the excitement in developing this regenerative work, which holds the potential for these devices to seamlessly integrate with the brain following implantation. It is also important to understand the consequences of inserting these devices; how is that changing the nature of the brain tissue affected? How might we be able to leverage or modify this injury response for treatment of neurological injuries and disease? Dr. Purcell has been the major driving force for so many of my accomplishments, and I can’t begin to do her justice in this blurb. But what I will say is that I was incredibly lucky to find a PI that was so supportive and invested in my success. She has provided me with exceptional mentorship and freedom in the lab for pursuing my own projects, as well as encouragement and active involvement in my professional growth and success. She has made this a seamless transition into my graduate education from accelerated work in her lab, and even early on she also was the sole reason for me pursuing my acetylcholine device side-project. She urged me to form a company, pursue a patent, and guided me to MSU Technologies to begin that process. From there, I formed a company, a research team, and began meeting with faculty to gain insight into developing the various components. These faculty were all surprisingly receptive and happy to help. I ended up having an off-handed conversation with Dr. Galligan at the end of that Spring semester, and he offered for me to begin developing the proof-of-principle device in his lab, through a collaboration with Dr. Swain. Since then, Dr. Galligan has also been a major contributor to my academic and research success, as he supported my development of the acetylcholine device from the ground-up (an incredible gift). Dr. Galligan and Dr. Purcell were two key players in my success; however, much of the rest of the Neuroscience faculty here also played a very important role in this, by creating the conducive environment for personal and academic success.
This is what I find so outstanding about the Neuroscience Program; there are so many exceptional faculty that, for completely selfless reasons, invest so much time into the success of their students. They are here to ensure that you will move on to be successful and make the Program proud upon graduation. So challenge yourself academically and professionally here, put yourself out there and get to know this wonderful family around you, and you will receive an unbelievable return on that investment.
What advice would you give to the current Neuroscience majors?
Constantly push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and always seek out opportunities for professional growth. This will help you to identify your interests as soon as possible, while also impressively developing your resume/CV along the way. So the best advice I can give is to set that goal and go after it, no matter what that is. I came in my sophomore year as a philosophy major, and now I’m working on my PhD in Biomedical Engineering 2.5 years later with a company. It’s remarkable what you can accomplish in these 4 years, and it is true that anything you set your mind to can really be achieved. GPA is certainly important, but how you choose to spend your time outside of classes will ultimately define who you are and where you will end up after this. So take chances, try new things, continue to push your boundaries, and see what you are really capable of accomplishing in this time.
Lastly, you are also in an exceptional program, so be sure to take advantage of all that the Neuroscience Program has to offer, it is here to help accelerate that success. Get to know the incredible faculty you’ve chosen who make this program so outstanding, get involved with as much of what the program puts on as you can, and definitely gain experience in a research lab (#1 priority in my book). These steps will benefit you in unimaginable ways in the long run.
How and when did you know what you wanted to do?
I was inspired while sitting in on the first day of my Neural Engineering Course fall of my Junior year. Dr. Purcell was explaining neural prostheses (microelectrode arrays implanted in the brain) and their applications. She explained the breadth of understanding we currently lack of the mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases, and how these devices offer new opportunities for revealing the neural circuitry responsible for these conditions, and also offer a unique opportunity for their treatment. She gave us examples of current clinical applications: deep brain stimulation for treating Parkinson’s disease, cochlear implants to provide hearing to the deaf, retinal implants to restore sight to the blind, and assistive devices (e.g., robotic limbs) for those suffering from amputation and spinal cord injuries. This showcase left me inspired, with hope of using this field to explore and generate treatments for neurodegenerative conditions that affect the lives of so many.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
A typical day for me will begin with an early morning class, and then from there I’ll head to the lab. What I find so exciting about research is that there is always something new to do; no two days are ever the same. New projects are always emerging, and each project requires several techniques to collect all relevant data. For example, I’ll perform stereotaxic neurosurgery in rats to implant microelectrode arrays in the primary motor cortex, and at later dates I will section the brain, stain those sections with fluorescent antibodies to look at specific proteins of interest (immunohistochemistry), image the stained tissue with a confocal microscope, and then quantify the intensity of the imaged fluorescence using a custom-modified MATLAB script. In addition to this, I’ll take extracellular recordings using the implanted microelectrode array in the rat brain to record local field potentials from nearby populations of neurons, and subsequently perform patch clamp intracellular electrophysiology on individual neurons, by placing a slice of that brain in a dish, in order to study their electrical properties. So on a given day, I’ll perform some structured combination of any of these techniques, which always keeps things fun and interesting. Moreover, watching the data you collect evolve into tangible results, and then having an opportunity to report those results for the first time (e.g., a poster presentation at a conference, a publication), is a tremendously rewarding experience. In this way, as a researcher, you are actively contributing to the collective body of scientific knowledge to-date, which can inform new strategies for studying the nervous system and developing relevant therapeutics.