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It’s Not Brain Surgery. It’s More Complicated.

Inaugural Charles Vest Scholar, Alessandro Ticchi, applies computer thinking to brain function, predicting causes and consequences of human behavior
December 18, 2014 —


Charles Vest Scholar Alessandro Ticchi

Alessandro Ticchi marvels at the intricacies of the human brain and has traveled a long way to delve into the topic.

The 27-year-old doctoral student and Charles M. Vest Scholar from Cattolica, Italy has recently come to USC—the third university at which he’s studied while working on his Ph.D.—to work with Professor Vasilis Z. Marmarelis of the USC Viterbi Department of Biomedical Engineering. Complementing his two previous years split between the University of Bologna and Imperial College in London, Ticchi will spend a year at the USC Viterbi School applying mathematical and computational models to study the interactions of networked neurons.

“We know that our brain is able to produce extremely complex and rich behaviors, and we have very good models for describing how individual neurons work,” said Ticchi. “However, there is a massive gap between these two levels, and we’re still trying to learn how networks of interconnected neurons generate human intelligence.”

The well-traveled scholar was working on simulating neural dynamics under the guidance of Professor Aldo A. Faisal in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College when Faisal recognized the incredibly valuable opportunity the Vest Scholarship program offered Ticchi to delve further into his work overseas.

“Professor Marmarelis works in a slightly different field from what I was studying in London, but he came highly recommended by my supervisor there,” Ticchi said. “It is a great honor to work with him, and I knew I’d made the right decision coming to USC when he and everyone else at Viterbi has been so helpful and taken a personal interest in my life beyond my research. I really want to thank them for this fantastic opportunity.”

USC Viterbi is one of nine engineering schools in the United States that is a scholarship partner of the Vest program.

Chartered by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the Charles M. Vest Grand Challenges for Engineering International Scholarship Program (The Vest Scholarships) was launched in March 2013 at the inaugural Global Grand Challenges Summit — an international event sponsored by the NAE in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineering (UK) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. The foundation of the program is 14 challenges developed by the NAE in concert with a global panel of experts and designed to challenge engineers around the world to use their skills and knowledge to make a lasting difference for our global society.

For Ticchi, that difference has come in the form of deepening our understanding of brain function and using that knowledge to create more advanced biologically-inspired computers. Yet, he recognizes the current chasm between the two.

“If computers were as efficient as the brain, all Google servers could be run on a single smartphone,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not there yet.”