By Jana Wiegand ’12 / Photo by Dina Ávila

When Sara Berger ’10 was growing up, her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Even though she felt scared watching his decline, she still wanted to know what was happening inside his mind. She wondered why he could remember the lyrics to songs, but not her own name. It was the first of many experiences that sparked her lifelong fascination with the brain, including becoming a neuroscientist who specializes in pain.

Today Berger works as a researcher at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, which weaves together artificial intelligence, hybrid cloud, quantum computing, and other technology to advance the hardware and software systems that shape business, government, health care, climate, and sustainability. In 2021, MIT Technology Review named Berger one of 35 Innovators Under 35 for her work with machine learning—finding better ways to quantify chronic pain and predicting ways to relieve it.

Berger’s work is informed by more than a decade of research, and she knows that technology alone can’t solve the problem. How people experience pain is influenced by biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors, which is why traditional diagnostic and treatment methods don’t suffice. No single set of data—whether coming from an MRI or a patient’s day-today 1-10 pain rating tells the whole story. Without a more comprehensive approach, even the best machine-based intelligence will miss critical information related to chronic symptoms, omit the influence of things like racial identity, gender identity, and social determinants of health, and potentially introduce or worsen bias within the medical system.

In a former client-facing role, Berger spent four years working with a medical device company to develop longitudinal chronic pain measurements in patients with spinal cord stimulators. She sat at the table with engineers, clinicians, computational psychologists, and other technical experts, trying to design the future of personalized, technology-informed digital health systems. Her team used a combination of wearable and environmental sensors to collect individualized data, utilizing machine learning to combine and analyze that information alongside self-reported updates. But Berger knows that this type of holistic approach is still the exception, rather than the norm.

Her current challenge goes beyond just humanizing digital tools, and tackles how to overcome systemic biases in designing technology and fundamental research—without exacerbating existing disparities in vulnerable populations. For example, at-home health care apps are still built around the assumption that everyone has internet access, modern technology, and similar interactive abilities and needs. Similarly, the clinical trials that inform medical advancements often rely on the subset of people who can afford to participate—overlooking those who live in hospital deserts, lack reliable transportation or childcare, and need financial compensation for time away from work. They often also ignore the mistrust many marginalized communities have in the medical system and medical research due to historic and present-day mistreatment.

“So you can have this idea, a technological capability, and ‘good intentions,’ but underlying all that are still systemic harms,” she says. “Good intentions mean nothing if they don’t result in meaningful, positive impacts for people.”

She credits Macalester for giving her the tools to think about critical issues through a multidisciplinary lens. In the neuroscience major, professors regularly asked her to consider how philosophy, computer science, biology, chemistry, and artificial intelligence intersected. As a minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, she explored an even wider range of perspectives.

“I remember looking forward to feeling discomfort because I’d never been exposed to a certain idea before and it totally challenged my worldview,” she says.

Berger went on to earn a PhD in neuroscience at Northwestern University in 2016. During grad school, she was part of a translational lab helping medical professionals develop personalized care for pain patients. Through neuroimaging technology, her team identified biomarkers that could predict who might develop chronic pain after a certain injury, or who might respond to a placebo.

However, private companies began to approach them about different ways to leverage this information. It bothered Berger that in the wrong hands, her research could be manipulated or misused. She started thinking deeply about the field’s bioethical aspects, and she saw an opportunity for how business, rather than academia, could be in a better position to drive and deploy values-driven research.

Today at IBM, Berger is exploring those possibilities and broadening her focus beyond pain research specifically. She recently began a large theoretical project examining the frameworks and processes underlying technology development and research. Her ultimate goal is to design a community-informed, responsible tech research model that can be used across industries, including health care spaces.

“The optimist in me is saying that there is a way to build this, but it’s an incredibly tough problem,” Berger says, acknowledging the privilege of being in such a space and determined to situate herself where she can remain proactive, accountable, and inclusive.

“I never thought that I would say that I’m a neuroscientist doing pain, ethics, and participatory research at a tech company. But here I am,” she says. “And the time for interdisciplinary research is right now.”

Jana Wiegand ’12 is a writer based in Ithaca, New York.

July 18 2022

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