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Spark of Innovation

Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadski

May 20, 2012

Editor’s note: Some of the best jobs require skills in math, science, technology and engineering, but local business leaders and educators are concerned whether there will be enough students interested in those subjects to meet demand. These skills are vital in Orange County, home to many rising and established technology companies. So, Commentary showcases local scientists and engineers, having them explain their work, and maybe get a student thinking about the kind of inventor or engineer he or she could become. Bill Blanning coordinates this feature.
What project/research are you working on?
We are developing a community health-maintenance approach to the looming Alzheimer’s epidemic in our increasing population of older Americans. Through the Orange County Vital Aging Program, we aim to improve quality of life while saving money for the health care system. Our project educates the community and its physicians about the need for maintaining healthy brain aging through behavior, diet, brain exercises and other resources.
The innovation here is a systems approach: Taking existing analytical tools and the latest clinical expertise, and melding them into a focused approach to foster healthy brain aging.
What is your specific role in moving this project/research forward?
I oversee a broad-based team deployed through this project. I help provide strategic and operational direction, and help to facilitate the project financially through sustainable business models, philanthropy and partners like the UniHealth Foundation.
What would be the most successful outcome of your work, and what impact would it have on how we live?
Living out our lives with the maximum number of days that are meaningful to us, our families and our society is paramount. Helping to lower costs of health care in our elderly, where the greatest number of dollars is currently spent, would be a major secondary impact.
What about this project is important to you personally? What is the very best part of your job – when do you feel the most satisfaction?
The ability to impact national health care policy at the community level by proof of concept works better than any governmental decree. National experts designed the Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease 2020 blueprint based on a community brain-health model focused on the care of people. Our project is one of the first to execute on that model. Check it out
Why did you choose this career?
I chose neuroradiology as it was a fascinating way to both study the brain and help treat real patients with brain and spine issues. Because it interfaces neuroscience with practicing clinicians like neurologists, psychiatrists and neurosurgeons, my field serves as the glue for a stimulating network of individuals, technologies and environments.
Who or what inspired you to study in your field?
My Dad was a psychiatrist with a remarkably vibrant mind, and he first stimulated my interest in how the human brain operates. The work of Geoffrey Hounsfield, the Nobel Prize-winning designer of the CAT scanner, opened the door to advanced brain imaging and exploded the field of neuroradiology.
What makes you particularly well-suited to this work?
Intellectual curiosity, never accepting the actual as good enough, relentlessly looking for the better way.
Where did you go to college? What degrees do you have?
I have a bachelor of arts degree from Stanford University and a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
During high school and college, which courses helped best prepare you for your current position?
Physics, biology, chemistry, creative writing, psychology, philosophy.
What is the best advice you received that has helped further your career? What advice would you give, particularly to the student who may think math, science or engineering are “too hard” for him or her?
There’s always someone smarter than you; work with them and learn from them. Showing up is 90 percent of the battle. Find something you have a passion for; it helps overcome the pain of hard work. If you love what you do, you’ll never work for a living.
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