For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we met Nataliya Kos’myna, researcher at the prestigious MIT Media Lab and initiator of the ‘Brain Switch’ project, supported by La Fondation Dassault Systèmes. Portrait and advice of a brilliant and determined dreamer.
Nataliya Kos’myna is a French-Ukrainian researcher with a PhD from Université de Grenoble in the domain of non-invasive Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs). She has been working for the MIT Media Lab in Boston since 2017, and mostly worked for the past 10 years on designing solutions to control drones, rolling robots or home appliances using brain activity. She won multiple awards for her work and was named one of 10 Top French Talents in the MIT Technology Review's Innovators Under 35 in 2017.
Nataliya has always been passionate about the idea of creating a partnership between Artificial Intelligence and human intelligence. From a young Ukrainian girl fantasizing in front of her television set in the 1990s to a renowned researcher in the field of brain-computer interfaces, how did she make it from dream to reality?
Nataliya was born in 1990 and grew up in a modest family in a small Ukrainian town, with no educational opportunities beyond high school. She was rather quiet and did well in school. However, a key moment set off the rest of her life in 1999, when The Matrix movie hit the screens. Driving her parents crazy, she watched it over and over – 27 times in total. With a neuropathologist mom and a whole library of brain imagery books at home, the 9-year-old girl was probably meant to be fascinated by the brain. She indeed became a true enthusiast and these questions have never left her since: how does the brain work, and why does it work this way? Can we imagine making it behave differently? How can we use its power to improve human life? At the time, AI was not as trendy as it is today, but 15 years later, she earned a PhD in AI and human-computer interfaces.
At the age of 19, she received a scholarship from the French government to study in France. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for her and she couldn't imagine missing it. She barely spoke French then, but she decided to go and seize the day without a moment's hesitation. "All hard work pays off, and you only live once!" she says with a proud smile. And that is how it all began: a sci-fi movie, a lot of determination and self-drive, and a little bit of luck.
Although her fascination and passion for AI technology has grown since, along with her skills and expertise, she always kept a sense of purpose about it. She strongly believes that, no matter how powerful technology is, it will never surpass the human brain and should always serve human needs.
For Nataliya, machines are nothing more than machines, however helpful and powerful they are. She strongly believes that no AI will ever replace experts who know their subject from A to Z. The human brain works faster, can innovate and, compared to artificial systems, can invent what does not exist yet. “There is not a single AI, no matter how trained and competent, that can build that trust, express the same empathy or any other emotion that only human-to-human interaction can provide”, she says. “And this is what will allow us to survive the challenges that lie ahead”.
Indeed, for Nataliya, science is about solving problems, i.e. improving someone's life somewhere. Being a scientist is a way for her to contribute to society. "I want to pay my debt" she says in a decisive tone. What technology brings to us is of immense value, and holds its share of technical challenges and puzzles, but in the end, the solution must be human-oriented. That's why Nataliya stresses the importance of listening to people's needs and building a system that meets them:
Science is all about humans; serving humans in their purpose for longer, better, more comfortable life.
Among all her work, the “Brain Switch” project, supported by La Fondation Dassault Systèmes, is very dear to Nataliya’s heart, as it improves the lives of ALS patients (also known as Charcot disease), for whom little research is conducted because the disease is still considered rare. Using a Brain-Computer Interface system that allows for brain-controlled binary responses (like yes or no), Nataliya and her team are helping patients with advanced forms of ALS to communicate with their family and caregivers.
For Nataliya, the project began during her PhD in Grenoble, France, where she was working on a smart home control project, which allowed individuals to move objects or flip switches by thought. A few years later in Boston, she received an email from the mother of an ALS patient who was looking for ways to continue communicating with her son. Nataliya was deeply moved by the mother’s story and decided to help her. But the companies she pitched the project to would not invest because ALS only affects 30 000 persons in the US(1), making it a rare disease. “I realized that there really wasn’t anyone out there to help those people. So, it had to be someone like me, who understood the need and had a solution”, adds Nataliya. In this advanced state of the disease, the brain is the only organ that still functions properly. Yet 93% of Americans with this disease refuse ventilation because they think it’s the end, but it’s not. They just need a system to maintain communication, that would be light, comfortable and easy-to use. That’s where it started.
With the support of La Fondation Dassault Systèmes, the project is now extending to other families who have agreed to share their data and join the research. Thanks to this, the team was able to build first prototypes that patients can keep for several months, and can now take the project to a larger scale. “This kind of project, knowing that I can put my science to work for the good, allows me to sleep very well at night” Nataliya concludes with a grateful smile.
As a brain specialist, Nataliya is still appalled to see all sorts of gender stereotypes in the scientific world, whether it’s the subject of the study itself or the empowerment of women in teams. She’s the best to know that there is absolutely no biological difference in the human brain based on gender, yet “some people still believe such nonsense in 2023!”.
For her, it is critical to be inclusive and bring different perspectives to the table to advance scientific research. “You need different inputs from people with different backgrounds and this also means different genders”, Nataliya specifies.
This in the end, highlights the role education in fighting biases and empowering kids, whether they are boys or girls. “Respect needs to be taught and we should start from preschool”, she says, “because the brain absorbs everything and its biases develop super early. From 10 years old, you can already have strong stereotypes in your mind”. Yet it is not only the responsibility of teachers for her, but also the one of parents and families.
Nataliya also highlights the importance of having female role models, which she had her entire career, and a supportive and inclusive environment. Drawing on her experience, she ends up our conversation sharing a personal message with girls and young women:
Whatever you love and want to carry on with: go ahead! Don’t listen to those who say no to your dreams!
She is indeed really proud of having found the strength to carry on against all odds, of having clung to her childhood dream to finally come up with something new, meaningful, and before all, helpful.
To conclude, Nataliya still has a few pieces of advice for the teenager she was, and this is also precious for today’s girls and women who might consider a career in science and technology: “Start young and give it your all! Having doubts or feeling intimidated? Just keep going, follow your intuition, apply to more fellowships, reach out for advice and expand your network, speak up, seek a strong support system: it will pay off in the long run!”
In short: if you have a dream or a passion you want to pursue, never let it go. A good advice for all her fellow dreamers, women and men!