Dr. Rafael Carbunaru is Vice President of Research and Development of the Neuromodulation Division of Boston Scientific Corporation. Rafael received his bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering from the Universidad Simon Bolivar in Venezuela. He was awarded his M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in biomedical engineering from Case Western Reserve University. After completing graduate school, Rafael joined the industry as an engineer for Advanced Bionics. Prior to his current role, Rafael was the Director of Research and Development for Emerging Indications at Boston Scientific. Rafael was named to the College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and he holds over 60 U.S. and International patents. In our interview Rafael tells us more about his life and work.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:10)
Outside of work, Rafael enjoys spending time with his family. They like to explore outside, ride through the beautiful bike trails in Southern California, and hang out at the beach together.
The Scientific Side (3:17)
Rafael is dedicated to creating innovative medical solutions to transform the lives of patients worldwide. He and his team are developing non-drug treatments to help patients with chronic neurological disorders such as chronic pain and Parkinson’s disease. To do this, they are creating new devices and therapies that can modify the signals the nervous system is sending that may cause the symptoms of these neurological disorders.
A Dose of Motivation (5:31)
You need to find the purpose in what you do in life. Once you find that purpose, give your life your best effort.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:49)
A love of science and engineering was a common thread in Rafael’s parents and siblings. Though they each ended up pursuing different areas in science and engineering, the value of these pursuits was instilled early on for Rafael. His interest in electronics and biomedical engineering began when he was 10 years old watching the first Star Wars movie. When he saw the scene where Luke gets a new hand, it created a lasting impression. He wasn’t sure this kind of machine-human interface would ever be possible, but he wanted to explore it. This led Rafael to pursue an electronics engineering degree in college. Afterwards, he traveled to the U.S. to pursue graduate school at Case Western Reserve University where amazing research in neural engineering was being conducted.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (18:06)
While at Advanced Bionics, Rafael and his colleagues were working on very small stimulators that were intended to be implanted deep in the body. They were really struggling to find a way to send sufficient power to these devices. After years of work, they still hadn’t found a solution. One day, the head of research and development told them that they had fifteen days to come up with a good solution, or they were going to have to stop the program. With all of the effort they had put in, and a solution seeming tantalizingly close, the team went all in for those fifteen days. They systematically changed the materials, configuration, and design of the device, and they made it work. This challenge brought out the best in everyone, brought them together as a team, and helped them do something remarkable.
A Shining Success! (21:12)
Each day they get a letter from a grateful patient or they get to meet a patient whose life was transformed by the products they created, it really makes all of the hard work worth it. Every year, Boston Scientific has an Impact Day where they invite patients to visit the company and share their experiences. The presentations are emotional and impactful. This is especially true for the devices they have created to treat chronic pain and Parkinson’s disease. Many of the doctors and patients they hear from have tried other therapies without success, and it is so rewarding for Rafael to see that his work is helping people.
Book Recommendations (26:26)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Most Treasured Travel (28:28)
Silicon Valley and Japan are two very different places that have really impressed Rafael. In Silicon Valley, you meet so many people who have a strong desire to innovate, change, advance quickly, and discover something new. There is a sense that technology can be developed to solve all of the problems in the world. Japan is also a very modern and high-tech society, but tradition and respect for the past are very powerful there. The Japanese culture highly values attention to detail, mastery, organization, precision, and patience. These two cultures are both wonderful, and they are unique in their approach to technology and the future.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (31:04)
One of the best traditions in their group at Boston Scientific is celebrating Halloween. Everyone puts together really amazing and creative costumes, they all gather down in the cafeteria, and each team creates performances and shows. These performances are fun and funny, and they require people to work together as a team, be creative, take risks, and get out of their comfort zones. A trophy is presented to the winner each year, and it is fun to cheer on the other groups. Some of Rafael’s best costumes have been dressing up as SpongeBob SquarePants and as an Oopmpa Loompa.
Advice For Us All (36:12)
Life is short, find a purpose that is worth fighting for. This will make your job a mission. It will make you work harder and feel more fulfilled. Also, tell people how fun it is to work in STEM careers. Scientists and engineers have the opportunity to work at the edge of technological advancement and push our society and humanity forward.
Rafael leads the R&D team in Boston Scientific that is advancing neuromodulation technology, and their products have transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide. For Rafael, working to create devices to connect with our nervous systems has been his childhood dream and brought him to this point with Boston Scientific. The vision inspiring his team is to enhance our ability to do what he calls “SPEAK BRAINISH®”. If we are better able to communicate with the brain and spinal cord, we can improve outcomes for patients with neurological disorders. The first step in achieving this vision was to learn how to control the way we stimulate the neural targets, with a precision that did not exist before. Through multi-year research efforts his team recently developed a powerful hypothesis to describe how spinal cord stimulation works, proposing the existence of two mechanisms of actions. Each one has a different primary neural target and a different way to engage it optimally. Boston Scientific translated these findings into an innovative product to treat pain, Spectra WaveWriter®, which optimizes each of these mechanisms independently as well as in combination. His team has also driven important advancements in the technology for Deep Brain Stimulation for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease and other movement disorders. The state-of-the-art Boston Scientific Vercise® systems are designed to provide the best outcomes by providing more precise control and targeting the right neural elements in the brain.