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The Hillock Newsletter - Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy From Refugee to Full Professor

An interview with Ilya Rybak, PhD

Ilya Rybak, PhD

By Jadwiga Bilchak

Dr. Rybak began his career in 1977 at AB Kogan Research Institute of Neurocybernetics at Rostov State University, Russia. In 1991, he moved to the U.S., and from 1993 to 1999 he worked for DuPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1993 and 1994, he served as a visiting professor at Le Havre University in France. In 1999, Dr. Rybak came to Drexel's School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, serving as a research professor. He joined Drexel University College of Medicine in 2006.

Jadwiga Bilchak: Everyone knows you for your computational models of circuits, when did you become interested in this line of work?

Ilya Rybak, PhD: My initial fields of study were mathematics and electrical engineering. However, when I was a graduate student, I read a few books about neuro-cybernetics and became so excited that I decided to find a way to work in this area. In 1977, I got a position of senior researcher at the Kogan Research Institute of NeuroCybernetics (KRINC) at Rostov State University (Rostovon-Don, Russia). At the time, it probably was the only research institute in the world that (thanks to its founder, Professor A. B. Kogan) hired mathematicians and engineers to work on brain problems together with physiologists.

The main area of my study at that time was computational modeling of visual cortex, visual perception and recognition. This was the topic of my PhD that I finally received in 1988. I was working in KRINC for 15 years, where I founded and headed a lab for neural modeling in vision. I worked in KRINC until 1991, when I immigrated to the U.S.

I imagine immigrating was a difficult process at that time. How was that for you?

Well, there was no easy way to leave the USSR. Accidentally, I was invited to present my work at a large Neural Network symposium in Orlando, Florida. The invitation was sent by Dr. Steven Rogers (professor at the Air Force Institute of Technology, Ohio, and major of U.S. Air Force) and written on the headed sheet of this military institute.

For the KGB, such an invitation was like a "red color for a bull." However, that was a brief period of "perestroika" in the Soviet Union. The KGB did not know what to do, and I was allowed to go. However, I had no money to pay for such a trip. Interestingly, by that time, I already applied for immigration to the U.S. at the U.S. Embassy and got permission to move to U.S. as a "refugee." Of course, it looked odd to be filing as a refugee while having a nice time in Florida at a conference – and being hosted by the U.S. Air Force covering all my expenses.

Shortly after returning to the Soviet Union, I immigrated with my family to the U.S. and came directly to Philadelphia. This happened in November 1991, a month before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since I did not have any position nor green card, it took a while (more than a year) before I found a real job in the United States.

Where did you work before joining Drexel?

My first job in the U.S. was as a visiting scientist at the DuPont Company (Wilmington, Delaware) at Central Research Department (DuPont Experimental Station). I joined the group of Jim Schwaber, who performed experimental investigations of neural control of respiration and cardiovascular system (baroreflex) and I focused on computer modeling of these two systems. For unknown reasons, some DuPont control engineers believed that in order to understand how to control the complex nonlinear processes in chemical plants, we need to understand mechanisms of motor control of respiration and blood pressure. Finally, I developed the most complicated (at that time) and realistic models of the respiratory CPG and neural control of respiration, which were published as a series of papers in high impact journals.

In 1999, Schwaber’s group disbanded. However, by that time I had started collaborating with John Chapin, a professor at our department (at Hahnemann-Allegheny University). I got a position of research professor at Drexel School of Biomedical Engineering and continued my collaboration with John. John is a really great scientist, who at that time actually initiated a new wave of brain-machine interface studies in the world and who, unfortunately, moved to SUNY. He was the one who convinced me to start modeling spinal circuit and neural control of locomotion.

So, it was after that that you joined our department?

In 2006, I got two very prestigious NIH grants: one on control of respiration and the other on control of locomotion. I went to Itzhak Fischer and told him that I wanted to join his department. With these two grants, it was not too hard to convince him. This was the right move. From that time (now for 13 years), I have been working in this department. I got many NIH grants and performed many studies in both fields (respiration and locomotion) in collaboration with many top scientists in the world performing related experimental studies. I am really happy to work in this department where we have friendly people, a very good research group and excellent scientific atmosphere. I love being here.

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