A Q&A with Henrietta "Mimi" Galiana, Professor Emerita

New Entrepreneur, Still Putting Students First

Henrietta L GalianaRetirement means different things to different people. For Mimi Galiana, Professor Emerita, it meant launching a startup company that uses eye-tracking in virtual reality to deliver better care for concussions and vestibular disorders. While new to entrepreneurship, Mimi continues to nurture her strong roots at McGill, with a new effort to help students early on in their research careers. The newly launched “Dr. Henrietta Galiana Travel Award in Biomedical Engineering” will help graduate students attend their first scientific conference in their thesis area.

We asked Mimi a few questions about her career, her new scholarship fund, and what Biomedical Engineering at McGill means to her:

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a Professor?

Much later after obtaining a B.Eng. (1966) and M.Eng (1968) in Electrical Engineering at McGill. I then spent 7 years travelling with my husband whose PhD studies and work took us to Boston USA, Switzerland, and U. Michigan USA. When we returned to Montreal, I joined a PhD program (1977-81) that shaped my interests to this date and motivated joining the group of Professors in the new Dept. of Biomedical Engineering. I started as Assistant Professor in 1984, moving finally to Full Professor in 1994 with links in several McGill Departments.

Q: Why did you choose McGill? Why Biomedical Engineering?

While in Boston, I had a position as Research Assistant in the Space Research Center of MIT. This period showed me how human reflexes are complex and very sensitive to different environments, especially comparing earth gravity to aerospace. My training in signals and systems allowed an alternate view of reflex function. So, when we returned to McGill/Montreal, I decided to register in Electrical Engineering at McGill, in the new PhD field on Biomedical Engineering. This was convenient for the family, since we were setting up a permanent home in Montreal, and my husband Francisco was appointed as Professor in Electrical Engineering at McGill. It turns out that Biomedical Engineering is one field that has strong collaborations between staff in many departments (Engineering, Science, Medicine…).

Q: Tell us about your new scholarship fund? Who will it benefit and what is the motivation?

One aspect of graduate studies is the pressure on students to publish, and travel to related scientific Conferences. Most of the latter require international travel, and a graduate student does not usually have sufficient funds to cover these. The problem is reduced in 2-3rd years of Master’s or PhD research, but a supervisor tends to reserve research fund contributions for the more advanced students. This new scholarship fund will focus on students in their first-second year of research to select an awardee who is early in their career. It is important for even junior students to learn from conference presentations and face-to-face interactions with established international leaders. Each conference is a long-remembered experience that can shape and accelerate a student’s progress.

Q: What was your research focus as a Professor (if you had to explain it your non-scientist uncle)?

As hinted above, I chose a selected set of eye-head reflexes to study their dynamics, and design tools to detect deficiencies. The reflexes involved are used to coordinate the two eyes and the head movements, while we walk around or watch a moving scene. They are crucial to keeping your balance and seeing the world without blur, despite body movements in daily life.

Q: What are the practical implications?

All athletes depend on stable eye-head reflexes to play their role and remain safe while reaching for targets (soccer ball, puck, tennis ball, circus acrobats…). When these reflexes malfunction (concussion, infection of inner ears, retinal problems…), disabling symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and/or blurred vision will force the athlete to stand-down until rehabilitated. So practical implications in this area are the need for automated testing of reflexes, targeted rehabilitation and eventual re-testing to confirm functional recovery. Note: Astronauts are athletes too…

Q: What was your ‘holy grail’? Did you ever reach it? (Are you still trying?)

I wanted to facilitate the analysis of eye-head reflex data such that particular sensory diseases could be targeted by simple changes in the testing protocol. With knowledge of underlying anatomy and sensory groups, it is possible to design the environmental conditions and expose problems in different areas (brain, sensory or muscle issues). I started by focusing on the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) which moves the eyes opposite to head motion to keep the surrounding scene clear and stable. A stunning fact emerged from looking at the then status-quo: current VOR tests in clinics are done in the dark, while normal function is seen when the visual scene is available. So, our holy grail was to first design new protocols that imitate natural conditions, and further automate the analysis process to provide fast, robust and portable reflex evaluation.

Q: Tell us about your startup? What is your role?

The solution was taken by our Start-Up company, Saccade Analytics. I serve as their President and Chief Science Officer (CSO). Given the availability of instrumented VR goggles, we developed a software library that allows automated testing and analysis of many reflex combinations in a 6-7 min session that includes return of results from the Cloud to the testing site. Thus, we now have the desired characteristics imbedded in our approach: Mobile testing, automated protocols and analysis, tests that mimic daily conditions. Our system is being used by several sports groups, rehabilitation clinics, gyms with athlete training and testing, even screening of miners before descending into the mine pit…

Q: What advice would you give to entrepreneurial students and faculty in BME?

There are two important aspects to think about: what does your target market consider as relevant for subject performance (pertinent tests), and how to design the company income chain. The first point reflects the possible bias of the potential client – what are they used to and how does it relate to your metrics? On the second point, the COVID19 epidemic basically stopped our income (Cloud fees for analysis) for several months because clinics and gyms were shutdown and VR goggles are not easily sterilized. While waiting for a vaccine, we turned to transferring some aspects of our code into Apps for rehabilitation of reflexes on smart phones – So, consider what aspects of your company income may be sensitive to pandemic or climate disasters and minimize risk by expanding product lines.

Q: How did the McGill experience (or people in the McGill community) help you to pursue/develop your passion/research? Was there anyone here who supported or mentored you?

McGill has a very collegial atmosphere across departmental lines, with a focus for the good of student training and research. There were many mentors, and some though retired still stay in contact – I myself am now retired as Prof Emerita, but colleagues in BME like Rob Kearney, Robert Funnell, Louis Collins, Ahmad Haidar are still very close to my heart, as are many colleagues in other departments and at the Deanery level. The primary angel in my research was Geoffry Melvill Jones, my Post-Doc supervisor, who founded the Aerospace Medical Research Unit at McGill. He retired to U. Calgary many years ago and has remained a wonderful supporter and close friend to this day.

Q: Why would you recommend students or faculty to join BME?

McGill is very highly ranked among Canadian Universities, especially for studies related to medical research. The Quebec environment is a mix of European and Canadian viewpoints that shine when not in a pandemic. It is typical to hear several languages on the street, and a huge variety of gourmet food. Finally, the cost of living and student fees are reasonable compared to Western Canadian/USA schools.

Q: If you could tell the world one thing about McGill BME, what would it be?

To me, the field of Biomedical Engineering is the most collaborative and exciting environment to work in. Collaborations between staff and students in numerous departments are unavoidable given the breadth of biological, engineering, biophysics, biochemistry, and medical issues that are interlaced in any project that relies on science while finding clinically useful methodologies. Novel solutions in BME require diverse expertise and McGill rewards that approach.

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