The story of NERF student Damon Verbeyst

23 July 2021 - People

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are three pillars at the core of democratizing knowledge and research excellence. Innovation and findings thrive on diversity. If we arm ourselves at all institutional levels with a better understanding of each path and peculiarities that brought them to where they are now, we can broaden opportunities and gain enormously through different skillsets, alternative ways to approach problems, and overall improve creativity towards innovation and breakthrough findings.

Diversity Equity Inclusion

Disabled researchers are vital to the strength of science

Universities and research institutes can best contribute to establishing a culture of inclusivity by promoting the recruitment of underrepresented candidates by research groups, sharpen the administrative structure to handle fairly, and invest in infrastructure that allows maximal independence for employees with disabilities.

Medical conditions have challenged many scientists in different ways, well beyond the classroom or laboratory walls. People with disabilities are far less present amongst the clinical, biomedical, and scientific workforce.

You may have heard about the achievements of British mathematician and physicist Stephen Hawking. At age 21, he developed a debilitating nerve-and-muscle disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Within another six or so years, he was a wheelchair user. Hawking has long needed help from a voice synthesizer to speak. Yet over the past decades, none of this kept him from making significant advances in cosmology — the study of our universe. He was an exceptional scientist. But he was not alone. In fact, as with most researchers, these scientists, engineers, and mathematicians tend to toil away mainly outside the public eye. Their disabilities do not define them. In many cases, their challenges may even spur them to tackle problems in a novel way — one that ups the chance they will find a solution.

Unfortunately, the number of students with disabilities enrolled in an academic carrier has not progressed much these past years. We need to act urgently!

Disability Inclusion
Source: Why is Data on Disability so Hard to Collect and Understand? DOI: 10.1109/RESPECT49803.2020.9272466 Conference: 2020 Research on Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology (RESPECT)

Support should exist at all levels: our mentors, colleagues, faculty, and society. We all do our part. We all can do better. Ultimately, the basis of success is unrelenting hard work, yet it is diversity in looking at problems and creativity that make for great jumps forward.

Here at Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF), we believe that one key way to enhance the inclusion of individuals with disabilities is to promote work environments in which diversity and inclusion are the rules and not the exception. This goes beyond disabilities to embrace a whole spectrum of creative minds wrapped in all kinds of fashion styles, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identification, or favorite sports team. If we want to address the most complicated challenges, create, and innovate in technology that advances our understanding of the brain, we must count on everyone’s talent, views, and knowledge. This approach, however, cannot be successful by simply providing a welcoming and respectful workplace to our students. Pushing research forward is a collective effort to use all resources in the best possible way.

Artificial intelligence to decode the brain

The story of Damon Verbeyst is one of resilience and positivity, a lesson on how to come out of adverse events to be successful and be inspiring to many others. We are happy to have Damon in the NERF family, and you should meet him too.

Damon Verbeyst pictured working remotely on his research project due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Tell us a bit about yourself

"My name is Damon Verbeyst. In 2019, I graduated as an industrial engineer in informatics at Ghent University. To expand my knowledge, I decided to continue my education, and now, two years later, I have graduated as a civil engineer in computer science."

"When I was 17 years old, I was involved in an accident which resulted in a spinal cord injury. Because of this, my legs are paralyzed, and I use a wheelchair to move around. Although this could have imposed a severe roadblock in my life, I always maintained a positive attitude, and I was determined to become an engineer. Next to my education, I enjoy playing guitar, and I have always been engaged in the local youth movement."

Why did you choose the path of machine learning and opted to do your thesis in a systems neuroscience lab?

"During my education, I became interested in machine learning because of the broad spectrum of applications where it can be applied to improve existing algorithms or create new ones. Ever since sustaining a spinal cord injury, my interest in neuroscience has been triggered. So naturally, when it was time to pick a topic for my master thesis, I immediately went to look for a thesis on machine learning applied to the neuroscience field. It is at this moment that I discovered the NERF. After reading their mission statement on their website, I became immediately convinced that I wanted to perform my thesis here."

What did you do at NERF during your thesis, and how did you integrate into the research team?

"During my thesis, I was supervised by Théo Lambert, a student doing his PhD in the team of professor Alan Urban. Théo helped me developed a set of algorithms for detecting movements of specific body parts on mice. Ultimately, the team will use these algorithms to facilitate the interpretation of brain imaging data from a new technique called functional ultrasound imaging developed by our team."

"Unfortunately, I was able to visit NERF only once because of the pandemic. However, I took part in weekly meetings with the members of the team. It was exciting. I could eventually present my work and progresses. I received the advice and comments of the other researchers of the group. I learned a lot, and it was very motivating to see the passion that the people at NERF have for their research."

"Last month, we all celebrated the successful defense of my thesis. We went for a drink with the team in Leuven, which was an enjoyable experience. I'm now actively looking for financial support and a fellowship to finance my PhD."

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