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Professor Mohamad Sawan is Revolutionizing Biomedical Research for China

Cutting-Edge Net of Biomedical Research and Innovation (CenBRAIN), School of Engineering
12, 2021

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【Meet our faculty】

Mohamad Sawan, Academician of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, Academician of the Engineering Institute of Canada, IEEE Fellow, an internationally renowned scientist in the field of smart biomedical devices, made major contributions to implantable and wearable smart medical devices based on smart microsystem technology. He has published more than 800 peer-reviewed papers, two monographs, ten monograph chapters, twelve invention patents, and 15 other patent applications are pending. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems (2016-2019), and the associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering. He is the founder of the Polystim Neurotechnology Laboratory and the IEEE-NEWCAS International Conference, and the co-founder of the IEEE-BioCAS International Conference. Dr. Sawan hosted the IEEE International Circuits and Systems Conference (ISCAS) in Montreal in 2016 as the conference chair, and hosted the IEEE International Conference on Engineering, Medicine and Biology (EMBC) in Montreal in 2020. He has won several international awards, including Hangzhou Qianjiang Friendship Ambassador Award, Shanghai International Science and Technology Cooperation Award, Elizabeth II Jubilee Diamond Award, Lebanon Presidential Award, Barbara Turnbull Award, ACFAS-Bombardier Award, ACFAS Jacques Rousseau Award, Canada's Top Ten Inventions of the Year Award, Quebec Official Medal of Canada (Quebec's highest honor), etc.

Connection with China

"I came to China from Montreal. I have been visiting China continuously for 15 years. My earliest colleagues are at Tsinghua and Shanghai Jiao Tong Universities. I also participated in the transformation process in China. I was very impressed."

Professor Sawan was invited to visit China with the Quebec Science and Technology Delegation in 2005. He had a preliminary understanding of the achievements of China's reform and opening up and scientific and technological progress, and began to pay attention to China's development. Since 2006, Professor Sawan has been an adjunct professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and he used to come to China for several days every year to conduct course teaching and scientific research cooperation. During this period, he met Dr. Guoguang Rong, presently a research professor in the Westlake University team of Professor Sawan. The two parties established an in-depth cooperative relationship at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. In 2009 and 2013, they applied with other colleagues for and undertook the Shanghai-Quebec International Scientific and Technological Cooperation research project, about neuroprosthetics and lab-on-a-chip based biosensors. Due to the outstanding scientific research achievements over the collaboration with the school of Microelectronics of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Professor Sawan received the Shanghai International Science and Technology Cooperation Award in 2015.

Prof. Sawan & Dr. Rong in Beijing (2018)

Professor Sawan has always been concerned about China's development, especially the progress of scientific research and education, but is deeply impressed.

In 2018, Professor Sawan came up with the idea of going to China and continuing to engage in the development of scientific research and education and focused on the development of China's new research universities. After understanding Professor Sawan's ideas, Dr. Rong actively introduced Professor Sawan to the latest developments, particularly in engineering research and education of China. Thus, he recommended Professor Sawan to Westlake University-a private university with government support, a research university with small size but high quality. It represents China's new exploration in scientific innovation and talent training, and its future development will be based on the scale of California Institute of Technology and the ideology of Stanford University.

Professor Sawan showed keen interest to learn more about Westlake University. After Dr. Rong's persuasion, on April 16, 2018, Professor Sawan visited Westlake University. On this day, Westlake University held the first meeting of its board of directors in Hangzhou. Professor Yigong Shi was elected as the first president of Westlake University, and Professor Tian Xu and Professor Min Qiu were elected as vice presidents. On the day after the end of the board of directors, President Yigong Shi met with Professor Sawan and had in-depth exchanges on the development of China's scientific research and the philosophy and development prospects of Westlake University. On April 17th, Professor Sawan held an academic lecture at the Yunqi campus of Westlake University and had free academic exchanges with young scientists and doctoral students at Westlake University. By the end of April 2018, Westlake University sincerely invited Professor Sawan to join in full-time base and offered him to be a chair professor at the School of Engineering. Professor Sawan readily accepted the invitation and said that the transition will be completed as soon as possible. After a transition period of about half a year, Professor Sawan officially joined Westlake University full-time in January 2019, he then became one of the co-founders of this new institution.

Prof. Sawan visiting Westlake University (2018)

Scientific research and talent training

Professor Sawan is rigorous in his academic studies and requires students to be innovative and dare to challenge authority. Professor Sawan holds regular weekly meetings with all researchers and doctoral students to discuss the progress and results of the project, as well as the next work plan of the group. At the same time, Professor Sawan conducts one-on-one, face-to-face communication with each team member every two weeks to guide the development of scientific research projects and jointly discuss how to solve problems encountered.

At Westlake University, Professor Sawan is leading the Cutting-Edge Net of Biomedical Research and Innovation (CenBRAIN) group consisting of around 25 people, within which are four research professors, 15 PhD students, 2 postdocs, and a number of research assistants and visiting students. CenBRAIN has outstanding lab resources consisting of two complementary sections: Microelectronics and Biological oriented equipment. Major equipment in the Microelectronics’ section includes probe station, wire bonder, flip chip bonder, 1/f noise analyzer, picosecond laser machinery, for chip testing, bonding and packaging. Major equipment in the Biology’s section includes Sartorius molecular interaction analyzer, Zeiss inverted high resolution microscope, cell incubator and shaker, hyperspectral imaging analyzer, and potentiostat electrochemical workstation, for biomedical devices testing and characterization, and wearable fNIRS/EEG device for brain activity monitor and brain disease diagnosis.

Prof. Sawan & CenBRAIN’s students and researchers

CenBRAIN aims to study the pathogenic mechanisms and to develop effective diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for brain disorders, to build devices to diagnose vital functions, to better understand mechanisms and principles of the brain at multiple levels and is expected to promote deep and close collaboration between neuroscientists and AI researchers. In particular, we are working on the development of novel microelectrode arrays in microfluidic system to facilitate our studies regarding controllable neural network in cell level, cell activity recording, single cell manipulation and stimulation as well as neurodegenerative diseases modeling and drug discovery. In addition, we are developing state-of-the-art micro/nanoscale interdigital electrodes for wearable and in vivo biodevices intended for real-time monitoring of neurotransmitters’ types, levels and distributions. Imbalance of neurotransmitters’ types, levels and distributions can cause intractable disorders involving descending/ascending modulatory pathways and/or dysfunctional organs. Our purposes are to directly understand the actual communication in between neurons to understand better the mechanism of neurodegenerative diseases.

The CenBRAIN Lab of Westlake University carries out brain-machine-interface research from three aspects: applications (macroscope), circuits and systems implementation (mesoscopic) and fundamental levels (microscope). At the application level, the main research is the development and validation of medical systems and devices for early interventions, treatments and rehabilitations of brain degenerative diseases. To attain these applications, we develop multimodal electroencephalography and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (EEG-fNIRS) imaging technology to non-invasively monitor brain waves and hemodynamic parameters of neurologic activity simultaneously. This multimodal EEG-fNIRS further meets the needs of continuous real-time physiological signal monitoring for preoperative diagnosis of brain diseases, intraoperative monitoring and postoperative management, outcome prediction and rehabilitation training. EEG-fNIRS complements the shortcomings of CT and MRI technology which is not feasible for bedside monitoring. Currently, we work closely with neurology departments at the province's top hospitals to apply this system on stroke patients. The recorded signals combined with advanced machine learning algorithms will be used to predict the prognosis of surgery on patients and further be used to predict the risk of stroke on healthy people. In addition to EEG-fNIRS, CenBRAIN is also working on the applications of photoacoustic imaging for brain diseases, to get deeper and more precise information (more detail of neuron cell level) with the expectation of expanding multimode imaging methods to improve diagnostic and predictive accuracy. These wearable technologies will be further applied to the detection and prediction of other neurological disorders such as epilepsy and addiction.

At the mesoscopic level, CenBRAIN designs analog front-end for neural activity recording and mixed signal system-on-chip (SoC) implementation for neural activity interpretation and neurostimulators for close-loop neuromodulations. These chipsets are the essential devices to build biomedical medical microsystems for our applications and represent the bridges between the brain and the nano- and micro- electronic world. CenBRAIN codesigns energy-efficient brain-mimicking neural network algorithms and neural signal processors to achieve the goal of multi-channel multi-purpose real-time neural activity interpretation. At the fundamental level, CenBRAIN studies the mechanism of neurotransmitters and monitor neural activity with microelectrode array to understand the principle of neuron behavior. CenBRAIN works on rapid detection of nervous system changes (treatment of epilepsy, stroke, etc.) and neurotransmitters using biosensors for rapid in vitro detection. In addition, CenBRAIN develops implantable biosensors, to realize real-time and continuous detection of medicine drugs in the body, to understand the pharmacological mechanism behind the effects of drugs, combined with clinical diagnosis and treatment and clinical big data analysis, to achieve accurate diagnosis and treatment of neuropathic diseases. Moreover, research regarding organ chip is carried out, culturing various organ cells or tissues on the chips can further analyze the organ characteristics and drug roles. This provides high-throughput approach for pathological analysis and drug screening.

The above-described aspects of interdisciplinary research of CenBRAIN lab complement each other. The application (macroscope) research activity in one perspective is closely interactive with the clinical practices, in another perspective proposes specifications for the design and development of various kind of brain-computer interface chips. The mesoscopic research coordinates the latest technologies in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and microelectronics, transferring ‘understanding the brain’ to properly address brain diseases. The implementation of custom SoCs enables us to understand brain functions in microscopic scale. The research activity in CenBRAIN forms a beneficial bidirectional link between theory and practice. CenBRAIN laboratory and its cooperative teams led by Professor Sawan are committed to forward-looking basic research, leading the generation of original results, in order to achieve major breakthroughs of key core technologies, continue to provide technical support and talent training for China's brain science and brain-related research, and produce significant social and economic benefits.

Professor Sawan also has unique ideas in talent training. At present, more than a dozen PhD students in the group are mainly domestically trained bachelor or master graduates. Professor Sawan found that they could accomplish the tasks assigned by their mentors very well, but the ability of autonomously driving scientific discovery and innovation was generally weaker than the doctoral students from various countries and regions around the world he had mentored in Canada and France. This may be mainly due to their excessive emphasis on performance and ranking in the basic education stage, thus stifling the cultivation of innovative ability.

Prof. Sawan in a meeting with members of his research team

Professor Sawan found that those students with strong innovation ability are often not the students with the best test scores and the highest rankings, but often from the students ranked in the second tier. Professor Sawan believes that although the basic education in China is very solid, it is necessary to make some changes in teaching concepts. We should not overemphasize test scores and rankings but should appropriately strengthen the cultivation of innovation ability and independent interest. In the future, international scientific and technological competition and the implementation of national innovation strategies will continuously deliver innovative talents. This is of great significance to the rise of China in the future, the realization of the national science and technology strategy, and the new contribution of the Chinese nation to the people of the world.

Professor Sawan also serves as the head of the Electronic Science and Technology Branch of the School of Engineering of Westlake University. He is responsible for the discipline construction task of the school's first-level discipline—electronic science and technology. He actively plans the curriculum syllabus, talent training plan, and academic talent recruitment. The field of electronic disciplines has made outstanding contributions to the development of Westlake University. Professor Sawan pays special attention to the application of electronic information technology in the medical and health field and hopes to realize wearable and implantable smart medical devices for both in vitro and in vivo technologies through advanced integrated circuit chips, artificial intelligence, nano-sensors, optoelectronics, and biological interfaces. Professor Sawan encourages young researchers to actively explore academic frontiers. As long as the researchers have good ideas, Professor Sawan will provide strong support.

Professor Sawan actively carried out scientific research cooperation and industrialization exploration. Professor Sawan's team and the Second Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine have explored the use of artificial intelligence chips to predict epileptic seizures and improve the living conditions of epileptic patients. The team cooperated also with Bright Dream Robotics of Country Garden Group to study the application of artificial intelligence in brain-computer interface and brain disease diagnosis, focusing on Stroke. More recently, the team is collaborating with 1st and 2nd Affiliated Hospitals of Zhejiang University to study seizure prediction and diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases. The team also collaborates with Zhejiang and Hangzhou Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop new biosensors for rapid detection of pathogens such as COVID-19. Professor Sawan also actively promotes the transformation of innovation achievements. In June 2019, Professor Sawan and his team actively participated in the National Innovation Week activities and shared as a guest speaker “Getting through the last mile of transformation of scientific and technological achievements”.

Philosophy of Balance

"I used to teach at Polytechnique, the engineering school of University of Montreal, Canada. Canada has a lot of forests. When I came to Hangzhou, there are also a lot of green areas. The fresh air and the sweet birdsong make people feel happy."

The busy scientific work makes this academician of both Canadian Academy of Engineering and Engineering Institute of Canada unable to spend the whole time to visit nature, but he also has his own way of balancing work and life.

"I always work hard and keep up the habit of getting up early. I only need 4 to 5 hours of sleep a day. It takes a lot of time to do scientific research, but I like it." Sawan laughed, "Come to Westlake University. After that, I set up laboratories, recruited members, interviewed students, and never stopped, but I still found time to run, running around the West Lake, and running along the Qiantang River, all of which are very enjoyable."

Professor Sawan's first half marathon in his life

Professor Sawan loves Hangzhou, a city full of vitality, colorful, beautiful scenery, and pleasant environment. It has both the prosperity of a big city and the natural beauty. The two elements complement each other, and people tend to linger around to enjoy them. Professor Sawan organizes team members to carry out outdoor group building activities every few months, including mountain climbing, cycling, sightseeing in scenic spots and barbecue dinners. In these activities, team members can interact more easily and freely.

Professor Sawan is very good at grilling. The taste of the large piece of halal lamb he personally marinated after grilling was praised unanimously by the team members. Professor Sawan often cooks Lebanese food by himself at home. He said that all the raw materials he needs can be bought in Hangzhou and the Lebanese food made is very authentic.

Prof. Sawan during an outdoor camping with his team

In his spare time, Professor Sawan will also take his wife and Dr. Rong and his wife to the West Lake to have fun and can find authentic Arabian restaurants to dine on the West Lake. The Sawans are both Muslims and it is not difficult to find a halal restaurant in the vibrant city of Hangzhou. Hangzhou also has the oldest mosque in China-Phoenix Temple, which was built in the 7th century. This surprised Professor Sawan, because it was not long after Islam was founded at that time, and a magnificent mosque has already been built in Hangzhou, thousands of miles away. In that era, personnel and economic and trade exchanges can be seen. After a lapse of more than a thousand years, Professor Sawan also carried the same mission of a community with a shared future for mankind to work and develop in Hangzhou. He has a sense of historical travel, and people can't help but feel a lot of emotion.