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What’s something that people may not know about you?

I was born in Russia and came to the United States when I was young. When people heard me pronounce my first name in Russian they could never repeat it back so I switched the pronunciation to the way President Ronald Reagan pronounced Mikhail Gorbachev and it stuck.

I am now a professor of Chemical Engineering, but my undergraduate major was neuroscience. When I entered college, I was interested in philosophy, which led me into psychology, which led me into neuroscience. At each stage, I was dissatisfied with the tools and techniques used to examine what happens inside the brain. This is what ultimately led me to engineering – I wanted to create these missing tools! After graduating from MIT I worked as Third Rock Ventures and served on the executive team at Foundation Medicine, a leader in personalized cancer care. It took a while, but a couple of decades later this vision is finally coming full-circle, which is what led me back to the lab and to Caltech. Some of the technologies developed by our group are starting to be useful for neuroscience research and maybe the diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases.

Why did you pursue brain cancer research?

Brain cancer is both a huge unmet need in our society and a big intellectual and technological challenge. Brain tumors are hidden behind a thick skull, so how can we detect them early and treat them effectively without having to repeatedly open up that skull? I think this is a perfect challenge for our lab, which works on ways to combine techniques like ultrasound that can penetrate into the brain with molecular and cellular engineering. We are working to connect the ultrasound to very specific events happening inside a tumor to diagnose and treat it.


What does it mean to you to be a Sontag Distinguished Scientist or What has the Sontag Foundation afforded you as a Distinguished Scientist?

It’s like being part of an amazing family. Rick is not just a generous philanthropist, but also an amazing leader. The foundation has assembled a phenomenal group of people among its staff, board and awardees who are not only brilliant and passionate about the challenges of brain cancer, but also fun! Of course, the funding we received allowed my lab to go in a new high-risk direction that we could not have pursued otherwise. But I count the inspiration and advice we received from the Sontag community to be as valuable.