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Canan Dagdeviren Believes In Borderless, Personal Medicine

The director of a groundbreaking research group at MIT helps design lifesaving devices that mold to the individual patient.

Humans of the Year

As a child growing up in Istanbul, Canan Dagdeviren had a mission.

She spent playtime smashing up rocks, looking for the atoms inside. "People were telling me it was an impossible task," she said, remembering the story as her parents told it. Her father put a book about Marie Curie in her hands instead. That book settled it: Dagdeviren would grow up to change how we understand the vital patterns and borders of life.

Now in her first weeks as director of the Conformable Decoders research group at MIT Media Lab, Dagdeviren develops ways to understand what patterns in nature are telling us about the human body. "Every part of our body has a language," she told me. "With our devices—conformable ones—we're translating biological language into electric language."

Those devices are from another relic in her childhood memory. When Dagdeviren was six years old, she learned that her grandfather (who she never got to meet) died of heart failure at just 28. Even as a young child, she decided she had do something to help heart patients.

"I saw that a dream can come true with enough time and material"

By 2009, when Dagdeverin herself was in her twenties, she'd received a Fulbright Doctoral Fellowship—the first year the doctoral studies grant was given in Turkey. She came from Istanbul to Illinois to work on her favorite project of her career so far: A pacemaker that harvests energy from the natural rhythms of the body, instead of a battery.

"It was a boost for me, and made me realize my own capability," she said of the pacemaker project. "I saw that a dream can come true with enough time and materials...You can actually make something that was originally your dream. You can touch it, you can feel it, you can place it on animals and see how it performs."

The kind of device that can listen to and convert the patterns of the body—hearts beating, lungs expanding, temperatures rising or falling—is an example of what Dagdeviren calls "pajamas versus suits." Older technologies are boxy and rigid, one-size-fits-most—like pajamas. The future of wearable and implanted health devices, she believes, is in technology tailored to the individual, like a perfectly-tailored suit. 

At Conformable Decoders, she's helping bring together a diverse cohort of researchers. They're a mix of masters and PhD students, as well as postdocs in material science, engineering, design, and architecture, all working toward the goal of decoding the patterns within us.

"You can't solve problems with existing mindsets, or with one single culture or discipline," she said. "When people get all together it's the best way. This is why I like America and why I came here; For me, America was the home—and still is the home—to do interdisciplinary work."

Thanks to the established platform for international scientists and researchers in the US, Dagdeviren's time as a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois was spent alongside graduate students of Indian, Turkish, American, and German backgrounds. The results when they got together in the lab, she said, were "simply fantastic...like you couldn't even dream of [doing] alone."

In the current political climate, she acknowledges a major shift away from that spirit. "If you feel like you're not welcome here, it's not good." She feels at home in the states, but is heartbroken hearing of colleagues who can't enter the US now, even with valid documentation.

"People are named as immigrants or nonimmigrants, but we do science for all individuals," she told me.

Amidst so many unknowns, Dagdeviren is setting her sights on even more ambitious work--deep-brain study, and how conformable devices can scale the depths of the brain using minimally invasive methods to inject drugs on-demand.

But her best project? She hasn't done it yet, she said with a laugh. "I always aim the best for the next [thing], so I think it will never come."

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