Building the Brain Maps of the Future While Studying for My College Exams

Building the Brain Maps of the Future While Studying for My College Exams

By James Watkins


Because his ambition and work ethic are inspiring.

By James Watkins

Gevick Safarians, NeuroConnect, 2017 OZY Genius Award Winner

I’ve been getting ready for my organic chemistry exam. Just a typical midterm season weekend at UCLA, where I’m a freshman. I’m taking physics, mechanics and organic chemistry, as well as biology lab because I’m on the pre-med track. But I’m really a neuroscience major. My goal has always been to become a neurosurgeon. I want to learn and become a doctor as soon as possible — I’m even planning to graduate in three years.

I spent these last few weeks making project sheets and plans for NeuroConnect, the project for which I won the OZY Genius Award. I’m kind of at ground zero, which is really exciting. But it also means I have a lot of planning to do. I’m trying to take artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality — all are growing fields in medicine — to enable doctors to show patients interactive maps of their brain. This would involve projecting patients’ MRIs or CT scans and literally walking them through the problem. My hope is that doctors will be able to use my tool to better inform their patients about their illnesses, equipping them with the knowledge of exactly what’s going on and, in turn, boosting the doctor-patient relationship. I’m teaching myself some computer science to help me jump-start the project.

I’ve been fascinated by [neuroscience] for as long as I can remember.

I’m only 18, but I hope that within 10 years, everything I’m doing now pays off. I have a purpose and plan to make a name for myself.

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Source Courtesy of Gevick Safarians

I grew up in Burbank but was born in Iran. We moved to America when I was just 2. My grandparents’ wisdom and their teachings really helped me — my grandfather talked to me about history and about the news; he also taught me mathematics. So since I was a little kid I’ve just been on a fast track. At home, my family speaks mostly Armenian — my parents spoke Farsi when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying. But I began deciphering it. Sometimes I wish I could visit Iran — I haven’t been back since I was 6 — but because I’m 18, I think I would have to join the army or something. My family’s heritage is very important to me. The Armenian community has a really deep connection. No matter our background or where we end up, at the end of the day we’re Armenians, and I love that about our culture.


Writing has long been a creative outlet for me. When I was just 6, I would write little stories and make books. I’ve also been working on my own novel for the past three years. It’s about a postapocalyptic society, with humanity starting over. For fun I play piano, and I’m teaching myself guitar. I’m lucky to have these creative outlets in addition to my scientific studies — it’s the left and right brain, I guess!

Why neuroscience? I’ve been fascinated by it for as long as I can remember. Growing up, both of my grandparents unfortunately suffered neurological illnesses. My grandfather’s arm is paralyzed because he had a nerve pinched resulting from back surgery. My grandmother had dementia and schizophrenia; sadly, she passed away a couple of years ago. Just being in that household, seeing my mom be their nurse, really motivated me. I still live at home and commute every day to UCLA, and it’s great to have my family’s emotional support to come home to every night.