Neuroscience major, autism advocate Saket Bikmal wins 2021 Goldwater Scholarship
Fourth-year student Saket Bikmal has long held an interest in autism spectrum disorder. His younger brother, Himal, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. The challenges from lack of assistance, accommodations, and tools for his parents to care for his brother sparked a career and life goal for then-teenage Bikmal.
“My ultimate goal is to become an 'NEUROpreneur' – someone who conducts research in neuroscience and neural engineering and applies that research to clinical application to create medical devices that will benefit the quality of life for special needs children,” Bikmal told the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation earlier this year.
For his efforts, Bikmal - majoring in computational and systems neuroscience in the School of Neuroscience, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science – was awarded a 2021 Goldwater Scholarship.
The award came in March, before Bikmal began a summer that would include travel to the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, and an online internship with Accenture Federal Services. The former was part of Virginia Tech’s Global Perspectives in Neuroscience and Medicine Study Abroad Program. His task on the latter: work as an intelligence analyst to better understand federal policy and how projects are completed from end to end.
Bikmal is now working in the lab of Brittany Howell at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke. In that lab, Bikmal helps design a wearable system for data collection using optically pumped magnetometer-based magnetoencephalography (OPM-MEG) to record brain activity during naturalistic interactions between a mother and her infant. He’s also done research at Georgetown University.
“While this has been done with EEG (electroencephalogram) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), using OPM-MEG should allow for better source localization — more accurate, fine readings — and allows a mother to be natural during her interaction with the baby, whereas in an fMRI system, participants have a limited range of motion,” said Bikmal, a member of the Virginia Tech Honors College.
“OPM-MEG is also non-invasive, allowing it to be conveniently worn as a helmet," Bikmal said. "Given the project’s success, this will be the first OPM-MEG recorded interaction between a mother and baby that is far more natural and social, and pushes much closer to the goal of analyzing brain activity in a completely natural interaction and environment. The recordings will also provide immensely important insights into learning and development and the potential to recognize learning disorder psychopathology.”
“Having Saket join the lab is really going to accelerate our work to adapt next generation wearable MEG technology for applications in mother-infant dyads during real, full contact, social interactions, something that hasn’t been possible until now and has greatly impeded our understanding of the unique relationship that exists between mothers and their infants,” Howell, an assistant professor at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, said. “His inherent curiosity and passion for improving lives through science was clear from our first meeting, and I know he’s the right person to advance this foundational work.”
Sujith Vijayan, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience, also has worked with Bikmal in the lab. “Saket always brought a broader perspective to the lab, thinking not only about the project at hand,” Vijayan said, “but also about how the techniques and tools he was using could be applied to technologies he hoped to develop in the future — for instance, developing assistive EEG technologies to help kids with autism.”
Bikmal rarely has been idle. A 2017 Washington Post profile details how then-17-year-old Bikmal co-founded the online business Zenaviv Inc. with his father, Harish Bikmal. Its mission: Help special-needs artists sell their work online, with a large chunk of the proceeds going back to the artist. The venture was inspired by Himal, who as a child grabbed his hobby artist mother’s paintbrush and started painting.
The article states that the younger Bikmal painted scores of landscapes, nature scenes, and animal portraits. His mother and father started a fundraiser by selling some of the paintings to pay for Himal’s treatment. Zenaviv was soon after created. It was Saket who came up with the business’ name -- “zen,” for enlightenment, and the backward spelling of “viva,” the Hebrew word for springtime colors.
“The Goldwater Scholarship is affirmation that I am continuing research in a field that will make a difference in the lives of many,” said Bikmal, who credits the School of Neuroscience for an enrichening experience. “I also see the Goldwater as a stepping stone towards future research fellowships and joining a countrywide and global community of like-minded researchers and enterprising students.”