Bin He, new department head of Biomedical Engineering at CMU's College of Engineering. Photos courtesy CMU.

His lab was the first in the world to fly a drone by thinking about it, using noninvasive technology to control the robotic arm.

Bin He says he was a science nerd as a kid growing up in Wenzhou, China. He was always looking to the future, imagining the possibilities.

When he wrote his graduate thesis on brainwave imaging and recording, that kind of research was still considered futuristic. Today his goals — to change medicine and health care in America — remain lofty. But through his research, now happening at Carnegie Mellon University, they’re also attainable.

A renowned scholar, He brought his pioneering research on noninvasive techniques for mind-controlled robotics to CMU this month as the new department head of Biomedical Engineering, succeeding Yu-li Wang. He will also teach and has relocated his lab to the campus, to continue research into brain-computer interfaces.

“Professionally, I have been the person who strongly believes engineering is critical to move the field forward,” says He, referencing the drone example mentioned above. “So, this is a unique place to advance the entire discipline and at the same time, my personal research.”

He’s excited to collaborate with top experts in engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence here in Pittsburgh.

“I love to collaborate with people because biomedical engineering is really interdisciplinary — it’s engineers, doctors, neuroscientists, computer scientists,” He says. “Every day I feel stimulated by something new, through discussion or collaboration with colleagues. To bring together people from various fields, and to train students, that is really a lot of fun.”

Among his projects: using biomedical engineering to bring hope to the more than 2 million people in the United States with paralysis. This involves developing engineering technologies that can understand brain dynamics to develop next-generation neurorobotics.

“After all these years, this kind of thing is possible,” He says. “In Pittsburgh, one world leader of brain-control technology is the University of Pittsburgh (Medical Center), where they do surgery to put a chip in the brain. My research is complementary; you put a sensor over the scalp to accomplish the same thing. It’s exciting research, a parallel approach to a problem.”

He comes to Pittsburgh from the University of Minnesota, where he ran the Institute for Engineering in Medicine. The move to Carnegie Mellon, he says, is “a unique opportunity.”

Bin He has relocated his Biomedical Functional Imaging and Neuroengineering Laboratory to the Carnegie Mellon campus.

Another example of He’s work: making brain imaging technologies faster and more spatially precise. He has made the commonly used EEG more functional for doctors by transforming it from a one-dimensional technique into 3D neuroimaging. This involves using the electromagnetic signals generated by neurons to produce three-dimensional images of the brain’s function or dysfunction.

It’s incredibly complex, and yet He makes it easy to understand: He likens the extremely small electromagnetic signals to a small boat in the ocean during a storm: “How do you pick up that small signal in such a noisy environment? It is a major scientific and technical challenge to sense, localize and image signals noninvasively from targeted neurons, considering our brain has about a hundred billion neurons. I have been spending my entire life pushing EEG technology in this direction.”

The research has earned him prestigious awards, including the IEEE Biomedical Engineering Award, the highest honor the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers bestows in the field.

The potential to change medicine and management of brain disorders through advanced technologies is “particularly exciting considering our societal challenges,” He says. “The United States is spending about 18 percent of GDP on health care and in another couple of years, it will be close to one-fifth. We have to do things differently.”

Take, for example, a person with Parkinson’s disease who cannot control his hand tremors. Medication isn’t particularly effective. But a pacemaker implanted in the brain can enable deep brain stimulation that can better treat the tremors.

“We are innovating more and more technological solutions that mean patients will get many more options to them in the future,” He says. “And we’ll help bring down health care costs.”

Jim Garrett, dean of the College of Engineering, predicts He will become a highly regarded leader on Carnegie Mellon’s campus.

“I’m also looking forward to my contribution, as a citizen, to Pittsburgh,” says He, who is living at Bakery Square while his wife Wendy, an editor for a professional journal, remains in Minnesota until their younger son graduates from high school this spring. Their older son is enrolled at Carnegie Mellon. When the family is reunited they’ll look to buy a house.

“I’m still learning the neighborhoods,” He says of his new home city. “It’s gorgeous.”

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.