What do you do?
Using a combination of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and gamification, I create VR games for neurorehabilitation of cognitive problems following a brain injury.
Why did you choose this field?
I love translational research and thinking outside the box. The journey I’ve chosen to take for my PhD and the creation of my medtech startup is extremely unconventional. I completed my Master’s thesis at the University of Oxford researching cognitive deficits in stroke survivors. I also started preparations to do my PhD within the same lab. When I lost my PhD position at Oxford unexpectedly, I was crushed. I moved to the Netherlands feeling like my dreams had been broken. I remember having a conversation around that time with a friend, “if you could have a meal with anyone in the world who would it be?” My answer was Prof. dr. Erik Scherder. Unbeknownst to me, my friend reached out to Erik on my behalf to let him know I was having a hard time and asked if he would have lunch with me. Erik graciously agreed and during the lunch, to my great surprise, offered me a PhD position with him. We assembled a team from both the VU and Utrecht University (UU) including: Prof. dr. Albert Postma, Dr. Tanja Nijboer, and Dr. Tilo Hartmann.
The catch was that we did not have any funding to complete the ambitious project I proposed: to develop a neurorehabilition program in virtual reality (VR) to address cognitive deficits following a stroke. But things have a way of working out! After unsuccessful grant proposals, I had a crazy idea. What if I created a startup company to fund my research? Possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, it seemed logical that my research could potentially attract venture capital investors as I had a unique solution to solve an existing problem.
During my Master’s research, I heard repeatedly from individuals that they were suffering from cognitive deficits following their stroke—preventing them from being able to live the lives they once could. Hence, the idea for my VR program, Koji’s Quest, was born. I wanted to create a new and exciting gamified approach to cognitive rehabilitation using VR and harnessing the power of neuroplasticity—the brain’s natural ability to rewire with repetitive goal-oriented training following an injury.
Once I had discussed the potential conflict of interest with the legal departments at the VU and UU, I set about to seek funding. This was no easy task, however I was able to secure more than €1 million in funding for my startup NeuroReality, and support both the development of Koji’s Quest and my PhD research! Only 1.6% of female entrepreneurs gain venture capital funding and I’m very proud to be a part of this group. It’s a challenge being the CEO of a startup while simultaneously doing your PhD. However, my unconventional journey allowed me to turn my dreams into a (Neuro)reality!
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
The ability to still follow your dreams even through adversity. I have autism and have gone through significant trauma in my life, which has made me feel like giving up many times. I wish I had known how my experiences and being different are strengths which makes me resilient and unique. It's okay to be different and this is what has contributed largely to my success.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I am constantly inspired to discover and learn new things. I particularly love translational research that allows you to implement your findings in the real world. Working in STEM allows me to harness my passion for taking pieces of a puzzle and putting them together to form a full picture. I feel grateful that every day, I get to share my research and work with others, and learn from their expertise and experiences to add to my own knowledge.
Best advice for next generation?
Women and girls are underrepresented in the STEM community, but we have the power to change this. By bridging the gender gap, we are contributing to discovery and bringing our unique perspective as females to these fields.
I would encourage the next generation of girls in STEM to reach out and connect with others who inspire you- networking is key. You'd be surprised how receptive many people are to share their advice with you and help you with your career goals. Don't be scared to follow your dreams, however far away they may seem. Every step you take is progress towards your success.
Also, I want remind young ladies that no matter what your background is or what challenges you've faced, these are the qualities that make you a unique and valuable member of the STEM community. We need more diversity in this field!
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"Never look down on someone unless you are helping them up."