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Senior Project Manager, Cardiovascular Health ResearchVIEW PROFILE
Amine Issa, Ph.D. (BME ’10, PHYS ’11, CV ’14), is a research fellow in the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He also is co-creator of Mobalytics, winner of TechCrunch’s 2016 Startup Battlefield. Born in Lebanon, Dr. Issa finished high school at 14, played video games professionally and even climbed Mount Everest for research. Today he’s found a way to marry his two passions – physiology and video games – to create a rewarding, challenging and unpredictable career.
I was very young when I got into Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences – 19 years old. I thought I’d get my Ph.D. and then teach at a university like my father did in Lebanon. But after receiving my degree, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Then I met Dr. Bruce Johnson (Ph.D., Division of Cardiovascular Diseases, professor of medicine and physiology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester) and decided to do my postdoctoral work at his exercise physiology lab. Together, we studied human performance in mountain climbers, athletes, Air Force pilots and other extreme environments. We had a great time, learned a lot and did some great work.
That said, I always loved playing video games and even played professionally for a bit. I spent a lot of my free time analyzing the performance of competitive gamers and building analytics for myself and my team . Sadly I failed to get money to pursue that as a path of academic research. Then this fall my company, Mobalytics, applied at the last minute to compete at TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield. We ended up winning, which was a huge surprise.
I’ve had several good mentors, but Dr. Johnson is a perfect match for me because we’re both very laid-back. He’s patient and supportive but also keeps things fun. It’s like he gives you the key to the Ferrari and tells you to do whatever you want, but you know he’s there to help. He is also there to tell you that you aren’t going fast enough!
A few years ago, we were studying Air Force pilots in F-22 fighter jets. After a disastrous crash in Alaska, the U.S. government wanted to know why pilots flying high-performing jets were becoming hypoxic so quickly. After in flight testing of pilots, we proposed a series of lab experiments and set people up with 16 different physiological signals – from blood flow to eye tracking. We monitored the subjects playing a video game while decreasing their oxygen to see how their performance changed.
Probably our most famous study was our Mount Everest project. The physical sensations of climbing Everest mirror those of developing heart disease – the higher you go, the less your oxygen perfusion. The objective was to hike Mount Everest to make ourselves feel like heart failure patients and monitor our vitals, including heart rate and sleep quality on the way up. We collected a huge amount of data and then analyzed it. I actually just published something. The publishing process is very slow, which can be discouraging when you are not very good at it or experienced like me.
“Being a grad student is awesome. You have a flexible schedule, so you can explore a lot of other things. Use that time to be a curious person, and do whatever interests you. Don’t wait for funding or permission. Just pursue it and see what happens.”
Video games have always been my second job. My brother and I finished high school when we were 14. It was isolating when our classmates hit puberty before we did, so we just played a lot of video games. Then, when I was getting my Ph.D. in Rochester, it was so dark and cold compared to Lebanon that I started playing more video games. I played so much that I became a professional. On weekends I played World of Warcraft with my team for up to 14 hours a day. Sleep and going outside the house were definitely not part of the plan back then…
When we studied the F-22 fighter pilots, we measured their performance while they played video games. I always wanted to assess performance at the highest level and figure out what made top gamers so great, but there was no sustainable business or research in physiological assessment of pros. Eventually, I met Bogan Suchyk, my partner in Mobalytics, on an eSports panel, and we started talking about a Moneyball for eSports. Mobalytics measures in-game performance and gives players actionable advice about how to improve key areas – fighting, farming, vision, aggression, survivability, team play, consistency, and versatility. We’ve spent recent months developing the company together.
For a few weeks, we were the hottest company in Silicon Valley. I can’t tell you how many emails and LinkedIn messages people sent. I barely touched LinkedIn before this. It was amazing because we got a chance to meet and interact with a lot of incredibly smart people, which is an enriching experience. Right now we’re focusing on our company’s vision and creating this analytic platform for League of Legends. Next year we’ll prioritize growing our platform and user base through other games and features.
We look at people’s heart rates and eye tracking while they’re playing games. Do they get scared or stressed? It’s really interesting how you can tell how good a gamer is based on their heart rate and breathing fluctuation. We’re bringing visual analytics to coach competitive gamers so they can learn about and improve upon their weaknesses.
I have three pieces of advice that helped me a lot: 1) Everyone is going to want to quit at some point. Just don’t do it unless you have a solid plan. 2) Being a grad student is awesome. You have a flexible schedule, so you can explore a lot of other things. Use that time to be a curious person, and do whatever interests you. Don’t wait for funding or permission. Just pursue it, and see what happens. 3) Find a great mentor who you can also have a beer with.
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