Join the journey: From intern to PhD at imec at Holst Centre

Pietro Russo is 28 years old and a doctoral student at imec at Holst Centre and Eindhoven University of Technology. He is working on the “Intranet of Neurons” project, which is funded by the European Research Council (ERC proof of concept grant) and led by Yao-Hong Liu, scientific director at imec at Holst Centre. Pietro began his research in 2022 and is now halfway through his four-year commitment to the project. Simply put, his research involves translating signals between brain cells into comprehensible information.


Mimicking motion

Pietro and his five fellow researchers are working on a wireless brain-computer interface. It involves implanting minuscule chips into the brain that collect information about brain activity. These tiny devices compress and encode the information. Then they send the data to a “central neural hub,” just below the skull, which translates the signals into comprehensible information. As Pietro explains, “This is the part where we learn to read the brain. The next step is to be able to write brain activity. Being able to read the information tells us what activities cause someone to raise their hand, for example. With that information, we can start mimicking the movement.”

This entire process must ultimately be done as efficiently as possible, wirelessly and with as little energy as possible, Pietro continues. “The ultimate goal is to give people their freedom of movement back. People with Parkinson’s disease, for example, or people who are partially paralyzed after a stroke.”

Pietro Russo

“System guy”

That’s still a long way in the future, though, Pietro stresses. For now, he and his fellow researchers are working on the brain-computer interface. He handles both the software and hardware side. “I’m more or less the one who brings everything together. In other words, I’m the ‘system guy.’” The team includes a neuroscientist and analog designers as well as Pietro. “We know very little about the brain compared to other organs, even though we use it very intensively.”


The doctoral student also did his graduate internship at imec’s Holst Centre. Remotely, though, since it was during the COVID pandemic. Pietro is Italian and grew up in southern Italy. He emphasizes “the south,” because it’s very different from the north. As he puts it, “we are part of the sun.” It was through the University of Calabria, where he studied electrical engineering, that he came into contact with imec and the Holst Centre.



“It was a time when I learned a lot, and a pleasant collaboration,” he reveals, “I was mentored during my graduate internship by one of the most approachable individuals I have ever met. At first, I still thought this was mostly a character trait of his. Since actually being here, I now know that everyone within imec treats each other as equals. Everyone wants to help each other.”


His graduate internship stimulated Pietro to look for other opportunities for research within imec, and he scoured the website. “I saw Yao-Hong’s project and responded to a job posting for a PhD position to do with the ‘Intranet of Neurons.’ Honestly, I never thought I’d end up getting this position; there were fifty other applicants.” The application process was rigorous, he continues: “I responded to the job opening in November, followed by many interviews and an extensive assessment. Six months later, I was hired and could start. I moved to the Netherlands in April 2022.”


Discovering something new every time

Living in Holland took some getting used to, Pietro confesses. He has since found his way around: “I even brave the rain.” Still, what he misses most is Italian cooking: “I take time on Sundays, for example, to make a real ‘ragù alla bolognese’ (Bolognese sauce).” Besides spending time at work and in the kitchen, Pietro really enjoys going on in-depth visits to museums, among other things. “For instance, I’ve been to the Van Gogh Museum three times now. I start at the beginning every time, because I want to be completely absorbed in the thought behind the artworks. I still haven’t gotten as far as the third floor yet. I discover something new every time. And that’s also true of my work.”