IPN Student Profile: Laura-Joy Boulos

IPN Student Profile: Laura-Joy Boulos in Her Own Words

"Every academic and professional step I have been taking since graduating from secondary complements my lifetime ambition: to build the first neuroscience center in Lebanon, my home country. Neurosciences are poorly established in the Middle East and even more so when put in the context of women in science. Hence, developing a neuroscience center with a strong female at the helm would be a double challenge and a significant accomplishment to achieve.

I pride myself on being a hardworking individual with eagerness to progress outside the box and beyond the beaten path and conventional limits. This is most probably what drove me to pursue a PhD in neuroscience after completing clinical studies in psychology –I wanted to explore the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the clinical symptoms I had observed.

This is also why I decided to enroll in a joint PhD program –what’s more enriching than a double experience? I remember one of my first conversations with my supervisor Brigitte Kieffer, back when I was an MSc student in her lab in Strasbourg. She told me her story, how she cloned the mu opioid receptor and what she wanted to do next. I could tell that she was at a turning point of her already impressive career. She had great accomplishments in her CV, she wanted to achieve greater ones; and I wanted to be a part of it all. We defined my PhD project together and I was awarded a prestigious 3-year grant from the French Government. This chronologically corresponded with Brigitte Kieffer’s reception of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science. A few months later, Dr Kieffer announced to me that she was appointed scientific director of the Douglas Mental Health Research Institute. She offered me to complete the second part of my PhD in her new lab. This joint degree appeared to be an offer that I could not refuse: two universities, two research groups and two research centers. She wanted to bring her expertise in biomolecular research to another more translational level and her aspirations matched mine perfectly. Her exciting proposition also meant that I would participate in the building of a new lab, a feature that was of particular interest for me given my (pretentious?) ambition to one day create my own lab as well. I googled the center only to discover more advantages: everything in the Douglas (a leading center in Mental Health) was perfectly complementary to the research center where I had started my graduate studies in Strasbourg (one of the most important units in biomedical research). The icing on the cake was that the Douglas was affiliated with McGill, a university I have always wanted to be part of/belong to. 

The joint PhD I am currently pursuing is a crucial brick to building the fundaments of a neuroscience center. It is providing me with technical and scientific skills, teaching expertise, contacts with scientific communities (networking is the key for success in the vast majority of the fields but even more so in an integrated discipline like neurosciences that embraces so many STEM sectors and in which the strength of a project depends on the collaborations you either succeed or fail to implement) and inside-information on the functioning that underlies research centers, all of which are necessary tools for me to expand neurosciences in Lebanon and the region.

Reward (infatuation, craving chocolate, feeling euphoric) and aversion (to a context, an object or a person) are two universal human experiences that greatly affect our decision-making processes (choosing a partner, buying a car, cooking dinner). Dysfunction of these positive and negative reinforcement mechanisms can lead to psychiatric disorders such as addiction. How reward and aversion emerge from neuronal brain activity and lead to addiction is an incredibly captivating question still to be answered. My neuroscience PhD research strives to unveil the mechanisms underlying such processes in order to help improve individual choices and get one step closer to finding novel treatments in the field of addiction and mental health. Addiction research has traditionally focused on dopamine and a limited number of associated brain structures mainly the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area or the amygdala. Recent studies however show the implication of other brain regions, mainly the habenula. This microstructure seems to be implicated in both positive and negative reinforcement. This microstructure also happens to contain the highest density of mu opioid receptors (MORs), a key protein in addiction mechanisms as largely demonstrated by our lab. However, the role of habenula MORs remains to be investigated. My project addresses this gap in the existing literature. The most valuable aspect of my project resides in the combination of leading-edge neuroscience technologies; that is, genetic manipulations, behavioral testing and novel neuroimaging techniques. These tools are translational because they can be used in both rodents and humans to bridge the gap between research and clinic –a timely goal in the fast-growing field of neurosciences. My PhD project could induce positive change in the clinic of addiction (by unveiling the neural basis of reward and aversion) and have broader impact in the field of mental health (by tackling the disconnect between research discoveries and the development of effective therapies) and beyond the clinic, mainly in neuroeconomics since reward is a focal point in consumer. The outcomes of my project are particularly salient in the context of Lebanon and the Middle East, a region that has been under war tensions for the past few decades, generating extraordinary numbers of mental illnesses that are closely related to reward dysfunction.

No matter how good a project or a supervisor is, nothing replaces a welcoming and fulfilling program. When I joined Brigitte Kieffer’s lab at McGill, I also entered the Integrated Program in Neuroscience. I had always been intensely involved in the faculty life of every university I had attended but still I was not expecting this flood of almost overwhelming opportunities.

I have participated in quite a few McGill organized workshops and competitions (Dobson cup, 3MT/MT180, the IPN retreat) with a special fondness of my involvement with the Graduate Association for Students in Neuroscience (GSAN) which culminated when I held the position of president of the association in the year 2015-16. This allowed me to put in place together with other passionate graduate students the first inter-university NeuroSymposium in Quebec. We gathered 300 students from across the province to attend an event made by and for grad students, with efforts to provide a space as equal as possible for everyone and in which every under-represented minority would feel safe. We emphasized an approach centered on reflection, namely around the future of neurosciences. We wanted to transcend the protocolar limits too often imposed by academia. We stole time to rethink the whole approach of neuroscience research in the modern world. This would definitely not have been possible without the encouragement and full support of our program and our university. They truly gave us the tools to make something big happen and the freedom to design it our own way, with our personal vision. I am extremely proud to be part of an institution that makes space for reflection at its purest state. McGill and the IPN only intensify my desire to invest the knowledge and experience gained from my studies and experiences here into creating platforms of my own, fostering the interaction among different human beings and pushing the limits of thoughts and dialogue towards constructive change (I believe this is the two-word definition of evolution), to build in fine transfer technologies that will produce positive change in the field of mental health."