The Body Electric
Robert Sclabassi played rugby as an LMU student in the early '60s, and he took his share of hard hits. In fact, his father went to one game and never returned, certain his son, the smallest player on the team, would be seriously hurt. Fortunately, Sclabassi survived those rugby days and went on to a distinguished career in the field of neurophysiology.
Today, Sclabassi is a professor of neurophysiology at the University of Pittsburgh, and the director of the Center for Clinical Neurophysiology at Presbyterian-University Hospital and the Clinical Neurophysiology Laboratory at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. He holds both a medical degree as well as a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Widely published and honored by professional and scientific societies, Sclabassi has served as lead researcher on 28 research grants in the areas of neurophysiology, electrical engineering and information systems.
Sclabassi also founded Computational Diagnostics Inc., a company that develops tools and techniques for monitoring the human nervous system during a surgery. One CDI project, funded by the U.S. Army's Small Business Innovation Research program, is testing technology, based on the study of electric eels, that will enable human tissue to transport electrical current and store energy for powering implantable devices such as cardiac pacemakers - an alternative to the invasive process of replacing or recharging them.
If that wasn't enough, Sclabassi has organized another company to commercialize the emerging concept of electronic diaries, a project funded by the National Institutes of Health and focused initially on obesity treatment. "People go to weight clinics and fill out a food diary, but the data is almost worthless," he says. "Our device is worn like a necklace, and allows you to see what and how much someone eats, and how much activity they have. A multimedia component then allows us to analyze a week's worth of data in five minutes. This technology would be useful for any kind of behavioral treatment."
And harkening back to his rugby days, Sclabassi recently submitted a grant for a five-year, $30 million project to study how mild and moderate concussive brain injuries, particularly those suffered on the battlefield, can be detected and treated using sophisticated imaging techniques. "That would be a great way to wrap up my career," he says, before adding, "unless something else interesting comes along."
Sclabassi fondly recalls his experiences at LMU, known then as Loyola. "There were a lot of very dedicated people in the school of engineering. Later on in my research career, as I wrote papers on thermodynamics and brain aneurisms, I was always referring to my college notes," he says. "The level of engineering education was extremely high, and I had no problem competing with people from anywhere, including MIT or Caltech. I learned how to write and think in a nontechnical way, and it immediately propelled me ahead of others in the field.
"One of the valuable things I appreciate was being in a very good engineering school embedded within a very good liberal arts school. There is so much that engineers and scientists can get out of that, and it doesn't happen at a lot of larger places."