Hiroshi Ashikaga

Complex Systems Summer School

Meet Hiroshi Ashikaga, MD. PhD, our featured profile for summer 2015. Hiroshi is a board-certified cardiac electrophysiologist with a background in continuum mechanics, medical imaging physics and mathematical modeling of the heart. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland and an alumnus of the Complex Systems Summer School held in Santa Fe in summer 2014.

We asked Hiroshi the following questions about his experience at SFI and his research interests.

1. What do you know now that you wished you knew when you attended CSSS at SFI?

I wished I knew Santa Fe is a wonderful place for biking! I would have gotten a bike for myself and gone out of the dorm on the weekends.

Overall, CSSS was absolutely a life-changing event. My main objective to apply for CSSS was to learn dynamical processes in complex networks, such as network topology and vulnerability; diffusion processes; information transmission and self-organization. As the only physician in the class, I ended up enjoying learning new topics in every lecture since all the topics were way outside my specialty. In addition, I learned a huge amount, if not more, from casual conversations with other participants over breakfast, lunch and dinner. By the way, I really liked the cafeteria of St. John’s College where we had every meal. I know a cardiologist shouldn’t say this, but I still miss the big American breakfast that I had every morning at the cafeteria with two fried eggs, strips of bacon, home fries and jalapeno!

2. What did you learn at CSSS that has helped you most in your career?

First, I learned that I was not alone. I felt I found home. In my current environment at a medical school, it’s not easy to find someone to talk about quantitative sciences. During CSSS I really enjoyed talking about math, physics, economics and ecology with other participants all the time. One day I was up all night working on a group project in my dorm room. I felt so good after I emailed my computation results to my group around 3am. Then I received an immediate email response from one of the group members saying, “Hiroshi, I think your calculation is incorrect,” and he was right! It may sound weird but this experience made me feel so happy. It made me feel that I was not running alone but together with friends toward the same goal, and made me want to work even harder. We continued to work on the group project after CSSS ended, and we were able to publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal Modelling the heart as a communication system.

I am glad this paper also attracted some media attention, which indicated that at least some people found it as interesting as we did.

Approach that digitizes crosstalk among heart cells may help locate epicenters of dangerous heart rhythms.

Second, I learned that I love theoretical physics. I kind of knew it all along but I suppressed it for a very long time because my environment requires that I be a practical person (you wouldn’t want be taken care of by a ‘theoretical’ doctor). During CSSS I frequently found myself falling in love with beautiful theories that came up in the lectures. Then suddenly I remembered that I have been obsessed with quantum mechanics for a long time, but I had never had a chance to talk about it with anyone. Of course it was not difficult to find someone at CSSS with whom I could share my obsession with quantum mechanics. It was a fantastic experience of coming out that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Third, I learned that I should pick a research project for fun. What drives me is insatiable curiosity to understand the beauty of natural phenomena. I think the best benefit of interdisciplinary research is that, as you integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines in your brain, you suddenly discover a completely new way of looking at your subject that you couldn’t even imagine. This state of enlightenment, to understand the phenomena at a deeper level, is what makes all the hard work worthwhile. Nothing else matters.

3. What are your primary research interests and where do you see your research taking you?

My research interests focus on novel diagnostic and therapeutic technology development for atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder in human beings. The standard of care is catheter ablation, where we stick spaghetti-like catheters in people’s heart and try to burn the heart tissue that’s responsible for irregular heartbeats. Many studies show that it is more effective than drugs, but unfortunately it’s far from curative at this point.

I believe there is a huge potential of a complex systems approach to be effective in cardiac electrophysiology. Since the heart is a discrete dynamical system, it shows features of nonlinear dynamics at cellular and organ levels, including restitution curves, heart rate variability and T wave alternans. They unfortunately have not had any measurable impact on cardiology, but I think we can learn a lot from computational neuroscience, which successfully has taken advantage of complex systems science. In essence, since both the brain and the heart are excitable systems, whatever works in the brain should work in the heart as well. In addition, in cardiac electrophysiology I feel that too much emphasis has been placed on prediction of arrhythmic phenomena. I agree with Dr. Josh Epstein (Johns Hopkins University, External Professor at SFI) in that to be able to explain the system and to predict the future are two separate things. Rather than prediction, my primary interest is spatial profiling of specific phenomena in complex networks, since the ultimate question of cardiac electrophysiologists are, “Where do I need to burn to fix this arrhythmia?”

4. What mark do you want to leave on the world?

First, I want to become the best father I can possibly be for my three wonderful children.

Second, I want to be someone who actually delivers one’s crazy ideas to the world. The goal of many people in academia, scientists and physicians alike, is to continue a self-perpetuating cycle: to publish the findings, to obtain grant funding to continue research, and to publish more. However, to truly serve the general public I feel I need to develop commercial channels to disseminate the value of your ideas to the rest of the world. Making a startup or two would help, but would not be sufficient. I want to build and grow an industry to deliver new ideas to the world.

5. What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?

First, I love watching Japanese anime. I was born in Tokyo, and was brought up in a classic Japanese anime culture. It’s a wonderful stress reliever. Some people seem to believe that anime is for kids, but actually it’s not. It’s simply one of the media to tell a story to your brain, just like books and movies. Some anime can be philosophically profound to satisfy the intellectual appetite of educated adults. This is clearly true from the fact that a number of popular, commercially successful Hollywood movies have substantial influence from Japanese anime. My favorite anime these days is “Attack on Titan” (you can watch it on Netflix). I am obsessed with the 3-D maneuver gear in the series, a personal gadget to expand human transportation in three dimensions. It is made up of relatively simple hardware, such as a body harness, metal strings, and compressed gas. Apparently many people are trying to build one in real life, and it’s fascinating to follow their progress on the websites and YouTube. If someone succeeds in building a working prototype I would definitely want to test-drive it!

Second, I love world history and geopolitics. My favorite authors are Niccolò Machiavelli, John Mearsheimer, and Samuel Huntington. I am a believer of realist theory, and I think we can mathematically describe world history. I proposed this crazy idea during CSSS and some people showed interest, but I did not have time to work on it. I am planning to revisit this topic after I do some more reading (in my spare time!).

If you are interested in other research topics that I am working on, you can visit my website (http://www.hiroshiashikaga.org/).