Growing up in Rabat, Morocco, Soulaïmane Bentaleb spoke French and Arabic at home. He found himself surrounded by an unfamiliar language and culture when he first started college at UCLA in 2019.
Now a fourth-year bioengineering major with a minor in neuroscience, Bentaleb helps lead an Arab American student club to provide Bruins like him with a supportive community so that their initial experience at UCLA would be less jarring.
“In my freshman year, I did not meet a single Arab student and felt removed from my culture,” Bentaleb recalled. “The Arab American Association of Engineers and Architects (AAAEA) at UCLA allowed me to feel a sense of belonging, even 6,000 miles away from home.”
But despite the initial challenge, Bentaleb never regretted his decision to pursue a college education at UCLA.
“As a sophomore in high school, I was assigned to give a presentation about my dream school in an English class and my presentation was about UCLA,” Bentaleb said. “It is a world-famous university that has it all — from academics to athletics, to food and location. UCLA Engineering is also host to pioneering faculty in the field of neuroengineering. All of these reasons made it an easy decision for me to attend UCLA.”
Even though both his brothers studied engineering in college, Bentaleb has always been interested in human behavior and, as a junior in high school, had initially considered majoring in psychology for college. Then, one night, as he was thinking about how to answer an essay prompt, he realized that there was no way he could have remembered all the sentences in his head. He started envisioning a technology that would instantly translate thoughts into text and that moment sparked his passion for a neuroengineering career at UCLA.
As an undergraduate researcher in distinguished bioengineering professor Wentai Liu’s lab, Bentaleb is conducting a study focused on improving the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy. He has developed an algorithm that helps interpret test data from electroencephalogram, or EEG. He has also been deeply involved in CruX at UCLA — a student-led neurotechnology organization that aims to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in a growing technological environment.
But even with the wide variety of intriguing and exciting professional opportunities, Bentaleb found himself missing something in his freshman year — a community, and specifically, an Arab community.
“In my freshman year, I did not meet a single Arab student. The Arab American Association of Engineers and Architects (AAAEA) at UCLA allowed me to feel a sense of belonging, even 6,000 miles away from home,” said Soulaïmane Bentaleb.
Coming into his sophomore year, Bentaleb came across AAAEA, which offered many opportunities for fellow Arab Bruins to get connected — from cooking classes to game nights. Bentaleb soon decided to take on a leadership position, serving as vice president for two years before becoming president this academic year.
“It was very important for me to create this space for Arab students to easily find one another and come together,” Bentaleb said. “We also support our members professionally by hosting resume workshops, info sessions and guest speakers from companies across all engineering fields including NASA, Illumina and GHD.”
As CruX’s outgoing president, Bentaleb has worked on brain-computer interface (BCI) projects that allow people to control devices using only their brain. The club’s latest project, which won third place in the NeuroTechX BCI competition, involves a device that can enable someone to type sentences and control a computer mouse with their brain activity.
“These projects are fascinating to me because they first sounded like science fiction, but they are real-life engineering devices that could revolutionize the lives of paralyzed patients,” Bentaleb said. “These projects have made me confident in my engineering skills.”
Bentaleb and his team will demonstrate this device on April 29 at the inaugural California Neurotechnology Conference hosted by CruX at UCLA, with the club’s chapters at UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz as co-hosts.
“I see this event as the culmination of my undergraduate career,” Bentaleb said. “The conference was organized for students, by students, and will bring to the UCLA campus prominent academic and industry experts for students across California to enjoy.”
Soon to graduate this June with a bachelor’s degree, Bentaleb said he plans to become a double Bruin, pursuing a master’s degree in bioengineering.
“My time at UCLA exceeded my expectations,” Bentaleb said. “I am glad to contribute to this ecosystem as the president of AAAEA and CruX. UCLA offers so many unique opportunities that I did not have access to back home.”
Amy Ionescu contributed to this story.