Revealing your brain: PhD program alum Erica Warp develops brain wearables using her background as a neuroscientist, artist, and entrepreneur

September 7, 2018

“I think throwing fireballs with your mind in a game is cool, but taking care of the brain and helping the brain get stronger is what really motivates me.”

Erica Warp, PhD program alum (entering class of 2006)

As Vice President of Product at EMOTIV, Erica Warp is on the cutting edge of brain sensor technology, helping to develop wearable EEG products that move the study of brain activity out of the lab and into the real world, for use by researchers and consumers alike.

Bringing creative, innovative ideas to life has been a consistent theme throughout Warp’s diverse career path. Before coming to Berkeley, she co-founded an artist-run gallery space in the UK, and after leaving Berkeley, she founded an educational game company, Kizoom, to teach kids about the brain.

Warp’s interest in neuroscience started when she was an undergraduate at Brown University, and is similarly varied—spanning from cells to cognition. She began doing research while earning her Master’s in Neuroscience from King’s College London, where she studied cell fate and differentiation in the developing brain in the lab of Jack Price

When she got to Berkeley, Warp explored systems neuroscience in the lab of Yang Dan and computational neuroscience in the lab of Jack Gallant before joining the lab of Ehud Isacoff, where she did her PhD thesis on the role of spontaneous patterns of activity on neural development. At Berkeley, Warp also developed a love of neuroanatomy by teaching with Marian Diamond. While she did not specifically study EEG, Warp says that her Neuroscience PhD and experiences in education and outreach at Berkeley helped give her the background to succeed in her current field.

In the following Q&A, Warp talks about how she uses her knowledge of the brain to improve learning and health, her advice for graduate students interested in business, and how being an artist helps her be more creative in her professional life. This interview has been edited for brevity.

Photo credit: Andrew Miller Photography

Rachel Henderson: How did you first become interested in neuroscience?

Erica Warp: It was at college. I ended up taking an Intro to Neuroscience class during my freshman year. It was just a whim—we had shopping periods and my friend was like, “Oh, go!” and I kind of fell in love with it.

I was always interested in science and in people, so it was a really nice combination of understanding how we work and what we’re made of. But as you can probably see, I have quite varied interests, so I was also very interested in understanding it from an artistic perspective—having an appreciation of the crazy cells that we’re made up of. Having some really good teachers also got me interested.

RH: What led you to come to Berkeley to do your PhD?

EW: I was deciding between [Berkeley] and UCSD, which also seemed like a great neuroscience program. But I really loved the people in the [Helen Wills] program. I saw they had quite diverse perspectives—and of things other than just research—that added a lot of context to the work they did. They were well-rounded people, but also obviously incredible researchers. So it was a pretty clear choice for me.

RH: Did you know whose lab you wanted to go into at the time?

EW: No, not at all! [laughs] I actually tried things at all levels. My Master’s was in development at the cellular level, but I was very interested in more cognitive and theoretical neuroscience.

My first rotation was in Jack Gallant’s lab. I was doing MRI and taking a neural networks class, and it was super interesting, but Jack said I needed to take a math class every semester for the rest of my PhD in order to stay on top, which apparently I didn’t want to do [laughs].

Then I rotated in Yang Dan’s lab doing systems neuroscience, and then was in Udi Isacoff’s lab, doing more cellular work again. It was actually teaching neuroanatomy with Marian Diamond and looking through the microscope again that made me go —ooh, I want to go back to looking at cells.

The zebrafish, which is what I ended up researching, was a perfect system for me. You could study behavior in an intact system and observe things at the cellular level at the same time, since they are transparent and you can use light-based tools. So I ended up there. 

RH: When you graduated, you went into science education and founded an educational gaming company. What inspired you to do that?

EW: I got involved in some of the outreach programs that were being organized through other members of the graduate program in Helen Wills, and was teaching kids about neuroscience at these events. I ended up designing a character, Ned the Neuron, going back to my creative roots. I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Inside Out?

Photograph to the right: Warp (right) in the lab with Ehud Isacoff (left) and Claire Wyart (middle)

RH: I did.

EW: It was basically a world like that, where the characters were brain cells, and the idea was to teach kids about the brain. I could see that kids were very interested. 

There was this idea that you couldn’t teach kids neuroscience because only super smart people could understand the brain, but that’s not true if you just start at the beginning. It seemed like a really great gateway science to get kids interested in biology, psychology, engineering, computer science, physics—all these different things.

So I was playing around with that during my PhD, just a fun thing to do on the side. When I was deciding what to do next, I was looking at that, versus staying in research. The project that was really exciting to me in research was the Connectome Project, but it was clear to me that the skills that were needed in that area were not mine. I was a biologist and what they needed were computer scientists, engineers, and data scientists.

I was really excited about a lot of the work being done in that area, but it was not something that I felt I could contribute to in the way that was needed at the time. [Compared to] this other project that I also thought was an important thing to do, and I didn’t see many efforts really trying to teach kids about the brain. I felt particularly qualified to add to that in a creative way by having a background in art and design, and having done a lot of teaching—and neuroscience of course.

If I’d known then what I know now about business and startups, I would probably not have pursued that particular idea [laughs], but I ended up learning a ton and had a wonderful time doing it. We won a lot of industry awards for the quality of the work that we did, we were supported by the NIH, and also had great feedback from a lot of kids.

Eventually we got more and more into brain health, and teaching about growth mindset and the ability of the brain to change based on the actions that you do. This direction was really trying to make the material more relevant to every kid, not just kids interested in STEM or science. The idea was to help anyone be able to understand that your brain changes, and it grows, and you’re not “good at this” or “not good at this,” full stop. You can learn new things and change your brain. [This is] based on the work done by Carol Dweck at Stanford on growth mindset, and understanding this concept can really empower kids to be better learners, take more risks, and not be as self-conscious in the process of learning.

So it was exciting work and it was fun, but it was not a sustainable business, and at some point I had to pull the plug.

RH: If there are graduate students reading this who are interested in starting their own business, do you have advice for them?

EW: First, if someone wants to do that, that’s great, look into it. It’s not like staying in academia is the only path. That’s a really important thing, one of the things I was really excited about being at Berkeley for—I felt like that was an accepted idea.

But it’s good to go through the numbers, learn about what it takes to grow a business, what are all the different things involved, what is your business model, who are you going to work with.

There are great resources at Berkeley for entrepreneurship. So reach out and talk to experts who have done this kind of thing before—you will find many at Berkeley. We were part of the SkyDeck accelerator at Berkeley, which is great.

And don’t be afraid to share your idea. You will get a better sense of “is this a viable idea?” It’s better to know now, than down the line after you’ve invested a lot of your blood, sweat, and tears.

RH: Tell me about what your role is now, and what your company is doing.

EW: I am running Products at EMOTIV. We’re a bioinformatics company, making wearable brain sensing devices. The company was the pioneer, over a decade ago, in creating EEG devices for a broader audience outside of medicine and academic research.

The devices that we have are in the hundreds of dollars, and they’re relatively easy to use. They’re still not broad-use consumer devices, but compared to an EEG device you’ll find in labs at Berkeley, they’re a whole different world, and they’re wireless as well.

This has opened up a whole new set of opportunities in research for studying the human brain out in the world and in context, rather than mostly inside the lab. Researchers are studying brains in urban versus natural environments, studying people in prison, looking at kids in the classroom—all these contextual studies that wouldn’t be possible if you had to be tethered to a big computer that takes an hour to set up every time.

There are also a lot of other applications for the technology. It supports brain-computer interface, so using our brain as an interface to control machines, either through active thoughts, or through real time neurofeedback by monitoring our cognitive states.

There are also applications in neuromarketing, user testing, performance, wellness, and health. My job is running our software products, and building out tools for our users to co-create applications, and also building some basic applications to get people started in terms of self-quantification, brain-computer interface, and research. So it’s a super exciting space.

It brings together a lot of what I’ve done in the past, and of course having a neuroscience background is a key component to it. Though I didn’t study EEG, I have a basic understanding of the brain that is super helpful. Having a PhD also gives me credibility in this space. Leading my own project teams, being able to communicate to various groups of people, and working with designers and engineers are all things I picked up through the other experiences I’ve had.

RH: Tell me about your consumer products aimed at wellness – what’s an application for that?

EW: Part of the technology that we’ve developed is a suite of detections for cognitive states. You can use these devices for self-quantification. Basically, tracking your brain, like you would use a Fitbit.

Taking stress for example, if you were able to objectively measure your stress levels over time, just like you would look at how many steps you do, you could see when you were getting super strung out, which is a huge health risk. The World Health Organization has named stress as the health epidemic of the century. You don’t realize it often until it’s really bad, because it slowly changes over time. So by being able to objectively measure stress, we can make better decisions about our behavior.

Similarly with focus—understanding what time of day or days of the week you are  most focused, understanding what your brain is like now and what work should you do now—this information can help to optimize productivity. We’re also using neurofeedback to improve meditation practices.

The more we can understand about our own brains and how brains usually change throughout a lifetime, the better we can tune our minds for improving learning, improving performance, and balancing brain health and wellness. That’s the ultimate goal, and the part of this technology that I’m really excited about. I think throwing fireballs with your mind in a game is cool [laughs] but taking care of the brain and helping the brain get stronger is what really motivates me.

RH: Are there things that you learned at Helen Wills, or Berkeley in general, that helped prepare you for the career that you have now?

EW: Certainly the basic background in neuroscience is super helpful. All the work that I did in terms of education outreach, the teaching that I did, and the mentoring in the lab that I was in, was helpful in terms of solidifying my own leadership and communication skills. Taking on other leadership opportunities, like taking part in the recruitment search committee, also helped. 

I think that is my advice: just do stuff. Don’t think about it too much [laughs]. I think that was a fault of mine in the past, thinking too hard about “Is this the right thing to do?” You of course want to think through the actual option itself in terms of its value and—“am I excited about it?” But less—“how is this going to fit into my career path?” Because that will all work its way out. Asking “am I really excited about this and I can contribute to it in a significant way?” was ultimately what I tried to have drive me.

Photograph to the right: Warp speaking at the IFA+ Summit in Berlin.

RH: I was thinking about your art background, and it sounds like you used that while creating the game and characters. Are there other ways you feel your artistic side has been incorporated into your career path?

EW: I use my visual and design skills in the work that I do for sure. I am not an expert designer, I have designers on my team that are much better, but I can contribute and think in that way.

More generally, I still do art now and then to play with ideas in a non-linguistic way, which oftentimes opens up ideas that haven’t been there. A lot of creativity is in connecting things that aren’t obviously connected. A startup is a creative endeavor, a product is a creative endeavor, and research is a creative endeavor. Being able to let go of what you know and what connections are already well-established in your brain, and let those kind of sink down so that others can emerge, is a skill.

Warp presenting a brain-computer interface installation at the California Academy of Sciences

[It’s] something that I think art has helped me train my mind to do that is helpful in terms of generating ideas for anything—whether that’s a feature for a product, a business solution, dealing with an employee, or whatever.

Obviously I don’t have a twin I can compare myself to, but I do feel like doing a lot of art, and still doing that, is something that allows me to stretch my brain and train it that way.

RH: Is there anything else you want to add?

EW: There are probably a million things you could do with a neuroscience degree. Right now there are a lot of really exciting things going on in neurotechnology and health around the brain that a neuroscientist could significantly contribute to outside of academia, especially around data science, [and] the merging of AI with our biology. Having a really deep understanding of the human brain is incredibly valuable.

Obviously, there are some people who will want to stay in academia, but there are a lot of exciting opportunities outside of that, and for people in academia to collaborate with industry. The brain isn’t going away. I’m glad I know a lot about it.

by Rachel Henderson
Original Publication: September 7, 2018

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