U of C scientist turned inadvertent billboard celebrity gets top Pakistani award for brain-chip work

Calgary scientist Naweed Syed was surprised to find his face plastered across billboards in Pakistan. The fame stemmed from the professor's groundbreaking work in brain-chip technology — which has also landed him one of the top awards in his birth country.

Naweed Syed to receive Pakistan's Medal of Excellence for research achievement

Naweed Syed, a University of Calgary scientist, will receive Pakistan's top civilian honour for his work with brain-chip technology. (Riley Brandt/University of Calgary)

A University of Calgary scientist has become something of a celebrity in Pakistan.

Naweed Syed's face is plastered across billboards in his birth country, selling everything from cellphones to chai tea. It's all because of the professor's groundbreaking research and work in brain-chip technology.

On Thursday, the president and prime minister of Pakistan were to award Syed with one of the country's top honours — the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan's Medal of Excellence.

Syed has been working on developing the first electronic hybrid brain chip since 2004. Together with others at the University of Calgary, as well as researchers from Germany, his team has created an electronic chip that can "talk" to brain cells. 

'Two-way talk' between brain and chip

"If we are ever to develop a chip that could be planted in the brain to control brain function, to understand brain function, or to even control prosthetic devices, it's really important for us to develop a two-way talk between the electronic device and the brain tissue," Syed told CBC's Calgary Eyeopener. "That's what this chip does."

Syed is a professor in the department of cell biology and anatomy at the Cumming School of Medicine at U of C and scientific director at the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute. He has received multiple awards for his work in the past.

What's different this time is the public attention his work is garnering in Pakistan.

Advertisers in Pakistan have been using Syed's image. He says he had no idea his image was being used. (Cumming School of Medicine/University of Calgary)

When a friend notified him that his face was showing up on billboards, Syed was surprised. 

"They [the companies] never asked me or contacted me or consulted me," he said. 

Turned billboard fame into helping kids

So Syed set about to turn the situation into something even more positive — rather than accepting royalties for the billboards, he convinced the companies to put money toward education in Pakistan.

"I said, 'Why don't we all agree that we will support 100 children per company to support these kids for their education, we will pay their uniforms, tuition fees and we will take care of them,'" he said. 

"We thought that the only way to combat any kind of ignorance or terrorism is to make sure that we promote education."

Syed said he's humbled by the attention and the honour in his country of origin.

Syed is working with the companies in Pakistan that have been using his image in order to provide education to young children. (Cumming School of Medicine/University of Calgary)

The situation has also provided some comic relief for Syed and his friends and former students in Pakistan. 

"My students … they said, 'We didn't know you had started modelling, and you're actually making more money,'" Syed said, laughing. 

"And they said, 'Maybe there's more money here than there is in science.'"

"I told them, 'Money is not what drives us to academia and our sole purpose is to make life better for people,'" he added. 

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener