A Ph.D. student in Dr. Marc Pell's lab, Maël's graduate research project studies the neural mechanisms underlying the perception and processing of vocal communication.
Welcome, Maël! Let’s begin by discussing your educational background. As part of your undergraduate degree, you majored in Cognitive Science and minored in Computer Science at McGill. Was there a defining moment in your academic career that spurred you to pursue graduate studies in neuroscience? If so, when did you come to this realization?
I've always been curious about doing research, and I grew fond of neuroscience through my Cognitive Science major. The problem was that I was also drawn towards the other streams of cognitive science and anything that could relate to the mind: psychology, philosophy, communication sciences, computer science... Then I found Dr. Pell's Neuropragmatics and Emotions lab, which allowed me to touch on all these subjects while doing research in neuroscience. Couldn't pass the opportunity!
From your perspective, how are the studies of cognitive science, neuroscience and computer science interconnected?
For me, neuroscience is one aspect of the broader field of cognitive science. I see it as building a map; a map of the brain and brain processes. But a map is useless by itself; it needs a context, and the correct tools to decipher and interpret it in the real world. Psychology, computer science, and communication sciences provide these tools and perspectives that give meaning to neuroscience for me, and make it something bigger.
Interesting! Currently, your graduate research studies neural mechanisms underlying the way humans interpret and react to different speech acts. Explain your research and its real-world implications to our non-scientific audience.
I use neuroimaging techniques to investigate how the brain works in social interactions. I work more specifically on the role of the voice in these interactions; our voice conveys an incredible amount of information on our feelings, our intentions, and our identity. I want to understand how the brain picks up and processes this information. I'm looking at mechanisms of perception, interpretation, empathy, socio-cultural categorization, all of these processes which dictate how and why we communicate and interact with other people.
How do you envision your research and data contributing to the fields of neuroscience, cognitive science, and computer science?
I want my research to be part of a bridge between the various research fields, despite their divergent methods, have very similar goals. Investigating brain processes, human behavior, speech and language, or society, all of these are different perspectives on the human mind, and I'm hoping to contribute in bringing these perspectives together to uncover the mind's mysteries.
Well said. What is one obstacle that exists in your research, and what would you propose as a solution?
My main obstacle is one that I believe many encounter in interdisciplinary research: the limits of knowledge. Since I am juggling with many research fields, it appears I can't be a specialist in each of them. I can miss important things, or on the contrary waste energy looking too deep in a domain that only has minor importance for what I do. In a perfect world, I'd just take the time to know everything! In the meantime, I just have to accept that certain things I say may be imperfect, and welcome criticism from specialists. The best solution is, as for many researchers, to share and to collaborate.
What do you see yourself doing after you complete your Ph.D. degree?
I'm aiming towards an academic career. I want to keep doing the research I love, and I am also really into teaching, so I feel like becoming a professor is a great path for me. But I am open to any exciting opportunity that might come up.
In terms of extracurricular activities, you actually have your own podcast series. Would you mind explaining how the idea for your podcast series came about? What do you hope to achieve through the episodes?
I wanted to create a platform where grad students could express themselves and share their experience, showing the researcher behind the research. So I bought a mic and contacted Konstantina, the PGSS Internal Officer. She loved the idea and got PGSS to support the project by sharing it on their social media and website. They even made a logo for it!
I started doing episodes with people I knew, but I quickly got new faces in the recording room. It's awesome to see how much people love sharing what they do and how they feel. I think the podcast format gives a sense of intimacy that can really bring graduate researchers together. Hear it for yourself, it's called "Grad Scientists and Where to Find Them"!
Out of all the episodes you’ve recorded thus far, which episode did you enjoy recording the most, and why?
It's very hard to say, I really like how the atmosphere of each podcast changes depending on the personality of the guests. They are the center of the show after all! The first episode is of course very special to me, it was so exciting to have this project start for real. But I'm also getting better and more comfortable with each episode.
I’d like to close this interview by referring to your IPN application. In your personal statement, you tell the story of the laser pointer, which I found to be very heartwarming. Please tell the story to our audience, and most importantly, have you had your first neuroscience conference yet?
When I was a kid, I saw a conference presentation at a museum, and the lady presenting was using a laser pointer, which I found was the coolest thing on earth. I asked my dad if I could get one, and he told me he'd buy me one when I do my first conference. Years pass, I never forget that, and the opportunity to finally have a laser shows up: let's work in research! I did present at a few conferences, and I did get my laser at last! Even though my motives for presenting at conferences are not exactly what I had in mind back then, I really like the symbolism I have formed of this memory. But yeah, I guess you could say I went to grad school for a laser pointer.
Thank you for your time, Maël! Best of luck in all your endeavours.
Published on May 6, 2020