Meet the Directors: Spotlight #6: Sook-Lei Liew

Dr. Sook-Lei Liew is the principal investigator of the Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Plano, Texas and was a pretty shy, quirky kid who really loved learning new things, homemade science experiments like making “perfume” from my mom’s flower bed, and creative school assignments, especially anything involving dioramas or funny skits.

For undergraduate, I double-majored in English (because I loved reading) and Kinesiology (Sports Medicine; because I loved exercising and being active). However, I did not really understand the connection between my college major and how it related to getting a job after college, so my senior year I took a career test, which suggested I become a farmer or an occupational therapist. I didn’t know what occupational therapy was, but I looked it up online and landed on USC’s page describing occupational therapy as a profession where you get to help people do what’s important to them by being creative. I was sold! I did my masters in occupational therapy at USC, and learned about neuroscience there. I was fascinated by the brain-behavior relationships I was learning, so volunteered in the lab of an OT professor whose research was in neuroscience. I loved it so much, I ended up staying and doing my PhD in occupational science with a focus on cognitive neuroscience, where I gained expertise in measuring brain activity using brain imaging. After that, I wanted to connect the cognitive neuroscience research skills I had learned back with my clinical background, so did my postdoc in neurorehabilitation at the NIH. During this time, I also had the opportunity to visit a few different research labs at the University of Tuebingen and Johns Hopkins. Through all of these experiences, I learned more about ways to modulate brain activity in people with stroke using neurofeedback and brain stimulation, which ultimately formed the foundation for what I’d start to do as a faculty member at USC.

What sparked your interest in AR/VR?

In 2015, my now-husband and I moved to USC, and my husband started working with VR for his job, so I learned about it from him. VR had just become commercially available, and I purchased my first VR headset (Oculus Rift DK2) for my lab to try out. I had already been working with brain computer interfaces and neurofeedback from my postdoc, but a constant problem was the lack of engagement of the neurofeedback presentation (e.g., usually a pong game on a computer screen or thermometer). VR offered possibilities for much more immersive and embodied neurofeedback, so we started integrating it with our brain computer interface system.

Which of your VR/AR accomplishments are you most excited about?

I am excited about all of our VR work!

The work that gets the most attention is our brain computer interface with VR (REINVENT), and I am excited about the future of this project, especially now that we have patent-pending status for it and have lately published more research suggesting it can really help some people with stroke improve the neural pathways responsible for motor control. I am also really happy that our participants so far seem to really like using it. We have worked a lot this past year to make it even more user-friendly and engaging for patients, so we are excited to get it into the hands of people who need it.

I am also excited about the basic science work we are doing to try to understand how to brain learns in virtual reality and whether skills learned in VR transfer to the real world or not. We sometimes joke that these experiments are “the most boring use of virtual reality” but in actuality, they are so critical for learning how our brains interpret virtual environments, and which brain processes are the same or different in virtual reality. This is really important especially if our ultimate goal is to train people to learn skills or rehabilitation in virtual reality, since we need to know that what they learn in VR will transfer back to their real lives. We’ve made some headway in this area and are about to conduct a few more exciting experiments this upcoming year.

Is there anything on the horizon of VR and health that you’re especially looking forward to?

I am most looking forward to improvements in the VR technology itself. A VR headset that is easy to use, reliable, has great graphics, and doesn’t require a tethered connection will really change the game for how we can use it moving forward. I think the field is definitely getting there but I look forward to continued improvements.

What advice would you give to those who wish to follow a similar path as yours?

I think in any career, it’s super important to know what drives/motivates you, and make sure that what you’re doing is in alignment with those underlying motivations so that you can really love and be passionate about it.

I think my biggest motivators are: (1) to help others, (2) to continually learn, and (3) to be creative. While there are definitely other ways that I could help others (e.g., as a clinical OT which I would also love), one thing that I especially appreciate about this job is the ability to always learn new things (and to actually generate new knowledge through our research!) and to be creative and come up with new ideas and solutions to problems. I would encourage others to think deeply about what is most important to them and find career paths that align with those values.

Anything you enjoy doing for fun, or are passionate about aside from AR/VR?

I love running (especially trail running) and hiking, reading science fiction and fantasy books, cooking, watching every streaming service, and eating fast food/fried foods. I also love hanging out with my husband and other friends and family (especially if hanging out with them is combined with one of the above).

To learn more about Dr. Liew and her work at the Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory, visit her official website here. You can also follow her on Twitter at @NPNLatUSC.