Ewina analysing neural recordings with her colleague.

Brain-computer interfaces for enhanced mobility

16 May 2024

When Ewina Pun leaves home in the morning, she only has a quiet ten-minute walk to the Laboratory for Restorative Neurotechnology, which looks like an ordinary house right next to the School of Engineering building. “It’s so different from Hong Kong,” she told us. “Rhode Island is about the same size as Hong Kong, but it only has about a million inhabitants. So it feels a lot less crowded.”

Pun’s days are full of activity, however. Her time is split between stints in the lab, attending meetings, and making visits to the patients her research is helping.

When she’s not working, she enjoys sport. “Since the patients I work with have suffered traumatic injuries and become fully paralysed, I am mindful of the risks of any extreme sports. I enjoy working out, playing badminton, ballroom dancing, and leisure skiing at the weekend,” she told us.

Pun says she finds Brown a welcoming, open, and flexible place for study or research. “Even for undergraduates, you don’t have to declare your major until the end of the second year. And for graduate students like me, you can take other classes outside of your area of research. You can actually do a separate master’s programme. I’m currently pursuing one in computer science.”

Pun’s research centres on “developing brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies that can help people with paralysis restore their communication and mobility.” This is pioneering work which involves placing micro-electrode arrays directly into the brain. Because of its complexity, this research is highly interdisciplinary. “We run a clinical trial that requires knowledge in neuroscience, engineering, computer science, and maths,” she told us. “My PhD advisor is also a neurologist, and I collaborate with a professor in the applied math department as well as engineers focusing on user experience issues related to the technologies we develop. So you learn to look at problems from multiple angles and perspectives. BCI is really a fascinating and rapidly growing field. I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen in the future.” The greatest satisfaction is to see the new technology allowing people to do things they simply couldn’t do before. “Sometimes when you see a participant being able to gain control of the device and do what they want, it just feels incredibly rewarding.”

Sometimes when you see a participant being able to gain control of the device and do what they want, it just feels incredibly rewarding.

Because her research involves working with the brain, Pun confronts great complexity in her research every day. It’s hard just to understand how the brain encodes information to carry out daily activities. “The fact that the neural-behaviour relationship is constantly changing in a non-predictable way makes it harder to build a chronic real-time system that is reliable and stable,” Pun told us. “We’re still figuring out how to deal with this.”

The work involves not just developing technologies to help individuals but also doing basic research about how the brain and machines can better interact. “That’s of interest to a lot of people these days,” said Pun, “and we’re learning a lot about how the brain operates along the way.”

Pun has been interested in science ever since high school. When she was 16, she entered the Hang Lung Mathmatics Awards on her own (usually, people compete in teams) and won a prize. “When I was back in Hong Kong recently, I came across a video of my own presentation for the prize jury. There I saw—I think it was in the second slide— a picture of the functional connectivity across brain regions as an example of complex graphs, just like the complex neural networks I am dealing with now. I guess, without realising it, that interest in representing complex systems has stayed with me all this time.”

Pun did her undergraduate studies in electrical engineering and her master’s studies in biomedical engineering, both at the University of Southern California, before taking up her doctoral studies at Brown. For her, the hardest thing about doing PhD research has been that “there’s nobody telling you what to do all the time. You have to figure things out. That can be hard, and it might lead to some late nights at the lab if things don’t go right.”

There’s nobody telling you what to do all the time. You have to figure things out. That can be hard, and it might lead to some late nights at the lab if things don’t go right.

The move into biomedical engineering was the result of a desire to find ways to help a greater population by developing new technologies that enable doctors to achieve things they couldn’t do unassisted. “I’m able to harness my interests in maths and engineering and put them to good use for the benefit of others,” she told us.

Having been awarded her Croucher scholarship in 2019, Pun hadn’t been able to receive her award in person due to the pandemic. “But on the other hand, this meant that I was able to attend last December’s Croucher Symposium and award ceremony in Hong Kong. I was so pleased to meet so many wonderful scientists who are part of the Croucher network, as well as meet the committee and staff members who run the Croucher Foundation. That was an eye-opening experience.”

Having been based in the US for a while, Pun has visited a number of cities there, including a memorable visit to the Grand Canyon, a road trip from LA to San Francisco, and a short summer in Seattle. “I really liked Seattle; it’s got great scenery and excellent coffee,” she said. But she misses the food in Hong Kong. “I’m a big foodie. I believe exploring new things and trying out new dishes everywhere I go is a big part of learning the culture. But the food in Hong Kong is the best!“.

Ewina Pun was awarded a 2019 Croucher Scholarship for PhD study at Brown University. To view her Croucher profile click here.