02 June 2022
Augusto García-Agúndez, PostDoc researcher at IMDEA Networks since March 2022, is a clear example of scientific vocation. Graduated in Industrial Engineering in Automatics and Electronics (Polytechnic University of Madrid) and PhD in Computer Science from the Technische Universität Darmstadt, he is currently working on the MAESTRO project, a research contribution, with funding from the European Union, that can save lives thanks to technology, in this case, thanks to the application of Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics to the rehabilitation of people affected by stroke.
How would you summarize the essence of your current work as a researcher, both at IMDEA Networks and at Brown University? At what point did you decide to adopt your current performance, your lines of research, and why?
I am trying to find applications of electronic and computer engineering to medicine. My family has had a big influence, my parents are both professors of medicine and have dedicated their entire careers to research. I first became interested in research while doing my Master’s thesis in Germany in 2014 on the use of the smartphone camera to measure the heart pulse (photoplethysmography). Solving a then novel problem, implementing it, conducting a study with participants and being able to publish the results in a scientific journal was what had interested me professionally the most until then. Since then, I have dedicated myself to this, and right now the greatest potential is in AI applied to Medicine.
On a personal level, this work means an unquestionable contribution to society, but also a responsibility to keep up to date. In an environment of cutting-edge technology, how do you face this responsibility?
You have to continually keep up to date with what other researchers in the same field are doing. The best way to do this is to study what is published in the field, organize internal presentations in the labs, participate in congresses, symposia, and special issues of journals and reviews. I have always liked both medicine and technology, and when I had to choose a career, the possibility of studying Biomedical Engineering was not yet available. At the time, I thought that Industrial Engineering offered the most possibilities. The most important thing that one learns at the ETSII UPM is to solve engineering problems of the widest possible spectrum, and to adapt quickly to very different areas. Throughout my career as a researcher, these broad-spectrum and flexible skills have been very useful.
How far do you foresee the horizons of biomedicine, from your field of research, as far as it will be possible to go?
The fact that collaboration between medical personnel and engineers is increasing will allow progress to be made in all areas where the amount of information available is so enormous and complex that it can only be analyzed with AI methods. Data analysis has enormous potential for assessing patients’ condition, prognosis and adherence to treatment, and enables breakthroughs in diagnostic procedures and treatments. At this point, it is difficult to guess where the limit may be because in a few years we will have solutions and applications that we cannot even imagine now.
In the context of an initiative of the size of MAESTRO, how would you highlight the present and near future of your involvement in the project – for example, with the selection of patients at Rhode Island Hospital? What is/will be your main contribution?
During my doctoral thesis, the involvement with the study patients was always very close, as we interacted with them directly and collected data in person. Unfortunately, since COVID started this is no longer possible. Patient selection will be handled by the neurologist who will be collaborating with us at Brown. My main contribution will be the implementation and development of the software needed for the project, to process and analyze the data, draw conclusions from the studies and propose clinical applications of the studies.
What aspects of your thesis on gamification and Parkinson’s will you be able to apply in MAESTRO?
MAESTRO is a much more developed and complex implementation of the idea on which my doctoral thesis was based, and I think it will benefit from everything I could (and could not, but wanted to) do during the thesis. And there are other aspects of interest, such as the ethical implications of the application of Artificial Intelligence in Medicine: just as it has the potential to solve many problems, it also carries the risk of causing many problems if used improperly. In this regard, the most important thing is to ensure the veracity and plurality of the data on which any development is based. This is a matter of deep concern to me and will be taken into account throughout the study.
This research is supported by the Marie Sklodowska Curie Individual Global Fellowship, to what extent is such recognition important?
MSCA GF fellowships are an excellent funding mechanism for many reasons. First of all, securing full funding for three years gives great freedom and flexibility to carry out a project like this. The fact that it includes a period abroad is very beneficial for diversifying the scholarship recipients’ knowledge. It makes sense that they are so competitive and I consider myself very fortunate to have obtained it. In my opinion, plans should be put in place to incorporate the grantees into the beneficiary Research Centers in order to obtain the maximum return from these European postdoctoral training programs.
Research takes a lot of time, but there should always be time to enjoy hobbies, what are yours?
It is certainly important to have free time, which I use to read (history, medicine, psychology…), cook, swim, and play video games.