Mechanical and biomedical engineering alumnus chosen as TED fellow

Erin Cassidy Hendrick
February 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Khalil Ramadi, who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in mechanical and biomedical engineering from Penn State in 2014, has been named a TED fellow.

Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Harvard Medical School, Ramadi earned the distinction from TED for his potential to become a global visionary, driven by his research into microinvasive brain probes as a potential novel therapy for targeting brain microstructures in various neurologic and neuropsychiatric disorders.

The TED fellows program brings together young innovators from around the world and across disciplines, who display both outstanding achievement and exemplary character, to raise international awareness of their work and maximize their impact. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design.

The director of the TED fellows program, Shoham Arad, said, “TED fellows are an incredibly diverse group, but they all have at least one thing in common: They are tackling extremely important problems in a unique and brilliant way.” 

The sentiment describes Ramadi’s work fittingly. After his undergraduate education at Penn State, Ramadi attended MIT to earn his master’s in mechanical engineering and his doctorate in biomedical engineering and medical physics. This is where he began exploring innovative ways to treat illnesses like Parkinson’s and epilepsy. 

“The brain is composed of all these interconnected microstructures. Many diseases arise when the signals between these microstructures malfunction,” he said. “We can do brain surgery to address some of these things, but we are not good at targeting where or when to put probes in.” 

According to Ramadi, the current instruments used to treat these conditions during brain surgery are about the size of a chopstick. He said, “It causes a lot of damage and trauma on insertion and can only target points along one straight line.”

However, in his research, Ramadi developed microprobes about the width of a human hair that can be flexibly guided into different locations of the brain to deliver medicine, administer electric stimulations or shine light if doctors need to better examine a certain area of the brain. 

“With these new techniques, we reduce the size (of these probes) greatly, from millimeters to tens of microns,” he said. The device is currently in the early testing stages and Ramadi is hopeful one day this work can benefit patients all over the world. 

After graduating with his doctorate, Ramadi began to pursue a different approach. Instead of investigating ways to treat the brain microstructures directly, Ramadi drew upon the whole systems thinking approach he learned in mechanical engineering at Penn State. 

“Instead of resorting to brain surgery, what if we can treat these illnesses without ever going into the body?” he asked.

The emerging thinking around the gut-brain connection is what spurred this realization. It posits that these internal organs are constantly delivering signals to the brain — to communicate hunger, produce more insulin or reveal distress from a gastrointestinal disorder — and the potential to halt or scramble these signals could help alleviate the symptoms of many difficult-to-treat medical conditions.  

“In a non-invasive procedure like an endoscopy or colonoscopy, you could theoretically implant a device in your intestine that is able to change the way you feel, how you perceive hunger or modulate how you digest nutrients,” he said.

Transforming these messages to improve the brain’s response has the potential to treat a myriad of diseases like obesity, diabetes and Crohn’s disease. While there are many barriers still to overcome, Ramadi said he is hopeful that one day his research can illuminate entirely new ways to enhance human health. 

“That’s the vision,” he said. “We’re in the early stages, trying to figure out the challenges of having a device stay in the gut and how to stimulate certain brain structures.” 

The intersection of mechanical and biomedical engineering provided the springboard for Ramadi’s expertise, merging together the fundamentals of engineering and how it can be applied impactfully to health. 

“That’s how I was trained at Penn State and MIT: Here’s the objective, here’s the challenge, how do you design something to solve your problem?” he said. “Whether that is in hardcore engineering, global health or humanitarian applications, this engineering toolkit can be applied across any spectrum.”

The fresh perspective Ramadi brings to the field and his passion for helping to enhance human health are what led to his nomination as a TED fellow. He will be delivering a TED Talk in April, detailing his research and envisioning a new future for the treatment of brain-related illnesses.

He said, “What excites me most about my work is that I can help solve problems that affect a lot of people.” 

As he prepares to share his experience on TED’s global platform, Ramadi is hopeful this is only the beginning.  

“If nothing else, my hope is to increase interest in neuromodulation research, excite patients about future treatments or even inspire young kids to pursue a career in STEM,” he said.


(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 20, 2020