DR. SYLVAIN BAILLET, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, Research, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University;
Professor, Neurology and Neurosurgery, McGill University;
Director of Magnetoencephalography (MEG) Imaging Core, McConnell Brain Imaging Centre, The Neuro;
Tier-1 Canada Research Chair in Neural Dynamics of Brain Systems.
Welcome, Dr. Baillet! We’re excited for our readers to learn more about your role as a researcher, administrator and mentor within IPN and McGill. Let’s begin with your educational background.
I completed my degree in Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering at École Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay (France), which is a university college oriented towards teaching and research careers - one of these higher-ed bizarreries we still have there. It’s been useful to me though, because it was at this point that I realized I wasn’t suited for the industrial world. I then graduated from the University of Paris-Sud with a PhD in Physics. I specialized in image reconstruction, with an emphasis on statistical models for brain imaging.
For those who are not familiar, please provide an overview of your current research.
A salient feat of the brain is its capacity to integrate the activity of billions of nervous cells into a unified self. Yet, the nature of the mechanisms involved is essentially unknown. Furthermore, this astonishing competence is vulnerable, and we remain clueless when confronted with the afflictions of the brain and the mind.
The broad goals of my research are to advance our mechanistic comprehension of functional integration in brain systems, propose new indicators of when this capacity is jeopardized or compromised, and derive targeted solutions for brain-health maintenance, diagnostic and therapeutic interventions.
Very interesting. What initiated your scientific question and research? Was there one defining moment or was it a series of events that led you to this point?
I got into neuroscience via the methods, not biology, physiology or cognition. I started my grad studies at the end of the 1990’s and when looking for a topic, I was first intrigued by artificial neural networks and computational aspects of neural circuits, as in David Marr’s groundbreaking work on Vision. At that time, artificial neural networks were falling under the radar and “classical” artificial intelligence was too conceptual for me. I am a pragmatic person and wanted to get into something in which neuroscience questions met concrete, solid analytics. It is at this point I found my niche in brain imaging. Functional MRI was already dominant, and you don’t want to be where all the smart people already are. They were dealing with complicated signal extraction and interpretation issues. This is why I became interested in bridging neuroimaging with electrophysiology, which captures brain activity at its natural millisecond speed. As often in life, serendipity is your friend, if you seize the opportunity. My PhD started when the first MEG (magnetoencephalography) scanner was installed in Paris; I loved the technique and the new realm of possibilities it offered for a broad spectrum of profound neuroscience questions not accessible with other techniques. As I dove deeper into the brain signals, their complexity became overwhelming. This explains why my research is currently trying to get closer to the basic mechanisms of neural communication in brain systems to decipher their code and language. Retrospectively, if I had pursued my first intention of working in artificial neural networks and intelligence, maybe I would have made a fortune and now be retired in Italy (still my second dream job). But I am glad I got the opportunity to do my first dream job instead and be involved in research, teaching and managerial responsibilities.
What a journey – from beginning your Ph.D. studies when the first MEG scanner was installed in Paris, to becoming the founder of the MEG core program at The Neuro. Out of all the papers you have published, which one are you most proud of?
Always the last one that was published. Folks often have a romantic view of research; we get lured by bombastic press releases about the next new treatment against cancer, TED talks and inspiring lectures by luminaries that make the whole discovery process seem like a straight line carpeted in red. The reality is as exciting but in a very different way; the cutting-edge is constantly moving forward – and you want to be on top of the wave, a little ahead is even better. Funding is highly competitive, data is messy, processes are convoluted and there is always the third reviewer of your manuscript who’s never happy. So, when the paper eventually comes out, it is both a relief to the team and an immense joy to share the bright side of things with everyone.
Interesting perspective. You’re a strong advocate of open science. Describe what the practice of open science means to you.
As publicly-funded specialists, our mission is to innovate for the greater good. Traditionally, this has been through intellectual property and patenting. I have 3 international patents behind me with one transferred to the biomedical industry. But the experience has been frustrating for the most part; the process is long and alienating. People go after IP with the idea of making a lot of money. But the reality is that the vast majority of patents never transfer to the industry, cost a lot of money for institutions to file and maintain, and actually obstruct further innovation because they tend to exaggerate the actual realm of the patented work. There are a few very visible exceptions but that’s what they are: exceptions. In the end, pretty much everybody loses time and money in the process.
So, I went on to practicing open science as much as possible early on my career, around the turn of the 2000’s. I am particularly proud of our open-source software application for neuroimaging, Brainstorm. The beauty of free, open access is that you don’t control the creativity of people who use your invention - you encourage and enable it. I was ecstatic when I read that Brainstorm was recently used to conduct field studies of literacy amongst young workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These have proven to be very rewarding experiences in my career.
That’s awesome! Moving on from academics and research to supervision, what have you learned from being an IPN supervisor?
Coming from abroad and from a different educational system, I have been very impressed by the openness of IPN to students of diverse backgrounds, given that they’re eager to cut their chops against hard neuroscience questions. I believe that the rotation program is a brilliant idea, both for students and supervisors. You want to make sure you are with the right person in the right environment - there’s the human factor in everything. The greatest strength of the IPN is in its students.
To graduate students reading this interview, what advice would you like to provide them with?
The advice I always provide is to enjoy every moment, especially when it is hard and when things don’t work out as smoothly as on those slick slides you saw at that last conference. You have to be ready for this. I will say this is the main thing you need to learn in graduate school (that and a few technical skills): the personal strength and the resilience that will help you in your future job and in every situation in life. Easier said than done, you will tell me: that’s right. I always take the analogy, for fun, of the dog chewing on its bone up to the empty core, or the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s a train coming at you. To help the trainee go through this, the supervisor plays a major role in full: that of growing confidence in your own skills, of developing a critical mindset to anticipate roadblocks, of providing some problem-solving strategies. These things don’t come naturally to everyone, but everyone can learn. If you eventually learn how to enjoy dealing with such difficulties and how to get around them by yourself, it means you’re ready to make research your career. If you realize you really cannot enjoy those things after trying very hard, that’s ok: you have grown more knowledgeable about yourself and this will help you pick the best of the many enjoyable and rewarding career paths offered to a PhD or MSc graduate.
It was a pleasure interviewing you, Dr. Baillet. Your passion for science, education and the community is inspirational. Wishing you all the best!
Published on September 3, 2019