BY THOMAS YEO, NICOLE KUEK
Professor Simon B. Eickhoff is the Director of the Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf and the director of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-7) at the Research Center Jülich. Simon is a leading cartographer of the human brain, and his team utilizes a wide range of methods to map the organizational principles of the human brain. We had the opportunity to chat with Simon before his keynote lecture in the upcoming 2018 OHBM Annual Meeting in Singapore.
Thomas Yeo (TY): Today we have Prof Simon Eickhoff here, a keynote speaker at OHBM 2018. Simon, thanks for doing this. How would you describe your research to a random person on the street?
Simon Eickhoff (SE): I would say that I’m interested in how the brain is organized, how it varies between people, and how this variability relates to things like cognitive capacities. Then ultimately, I want to contribute to developing new tools for diagnosing and treating neurological and psychiatric disorders.
TY: That’s a rich set of activities – how did you end up on this research path?
SE: More or less by accident. I studied medicine in Aachen, and late at night at a party in my hometown, I met a friend from school who had started studying in Dusseldorf. He told me about brain research there and I thought it sounded quite interesting. So I called Karl Zilles’ secretary, met him, and was really fascinated. I started my doctoral studies there and never really managed to leave.
TY: Your lab is involved in several projects – but what is the most exciting thing you’re working on now?
SE: There are two things we are doing right now that I’m really excited about. One is brain-phenotype relationships. Can we actually infer complex phenotypes from brain imaging data? Can we predict personality traits or cognitive performance? And the key aspect here is --- given that there’s quite a lot of work on this already --- can we predict it in an interpretable fashion. What we need is good predictive performance, while also learning something about brain organization. This is one of the aspects that I really want to push, as it’s not highlighted enough in current discussions. It’s one thing to be on the data-driven side, and to get good compressions, good predictions. This is, without any question, awesome. But in the end, we also want to learn something about the brain – how the brain is organized. There’s a lot of work going on in our lab that really tries to combine the more data-driven work from a computer science perspective, with the more traditional neuroanatomical view.
The second part is more related to brain mapping. You can describe the brain through a lot of different features. So for each point in the brain you can say, what are the structural properties, what is the trajectory as we age, how is it disturbed or changed in people with Parkinson’s or schizophrenia. But also, what’s the functional connectivity profiles at rest and during task, what are the structural connectivity profiles, and so on. You can use each of these features to map the brain and to delineate brain areas. But how does all of that work together? That’s the critical question, and cracking this kind of topographical code, that’s something that we can hopefully get closer to. And it’s pretty exciting!
TY: Moving forward – what do you hope your research will accomplish in the next 5-10 years?
SE: Well if we manage to do the things we just mentioned, I’ll be quite happy! The predictive modeling, but also brain mapping, understanding organization and topographical complexity of the brain. That’s going to be fantastic!
Looking ahead, I’m not sure if it will be done in five years, but it will be really exciting if we can go outside of the academic field, outside of doing research to just get the next papers, and to mature enough to actually bring our research into clinical practice. Five years – I’m skeptical if we’ll get there, but over 10 years, I’d be more confident. If my team will be able to contribute to it, then that would be fantastic. And we’re working towards that goal.
TY: What do you think is the biggest obstacle right now?
SE: Towards clinical application? In the end there’s so much flexibility in the analysis of imaging data. We always hope that we live in a perfect world, where you acquire data, and then you do one single analysis, which is a priori planned, and that result gets published. But I’m not entirely sure that most labs do that.
The thing is, if you really want to go and measure yourself, say by the standards of clinical trials, that would need to happen. You’d have to have your analysis plan ready, deposit them, acquire the data and carry out one single analysis and report the outcome. Then if you want to have something that’s clinically useful, it needs to have a really high accuracy and predictive value. What I really value is the current push towards more methodological rigour. I’m really happy to see that it’s becoming slightly more easy to publish null results, and new methods are not just judged by “better” performance.
TY: So you’re saying that p-hacking is a problem, but I guess it’s a bit unclear to me if that’s the main problem. Even with the high quality Human Connectome Project data, the predictive accuracy is not that amazing.
SE: Right, we still have a lot more work to do. And since you’ve mentioned the HCP dataset, this is never what you’d get from a clinical setting, where the data is acquired in a short time by a technician who is less invested than, e.g., a PHD student. And also the patient may not be as motivated as a research subject to lie still, comply with instructions etc.
Most likely, what will happen is the field will be split into different domains. One that is very high resolution, very intense sampling, and a lot of valuable data for each individual. That will be great for understanding brain organization.
But there will also be the other side, that will deliberately say “I want to use low quality, clinical data.” These adjectives may be the same thing, though the latter just sounds better [laughs]. We are using standard clinical quality data and we know the data is bad, but we also know that we need to find something that works on such data if we want to make an impact beyond research as an academic discipline. So we have to be up for the challenge! One thing we are doing a lot now is to deliberately make our lives difficult, by combining data across many different sites, different scanners, different populations, different continents. That way, the dataset is diverse - often even bad - but we’re happy with some drop in performance, because we know this is genuine performance. We have to improve it, but at least we’re not tricking ourselves into believing that we’re doing extremely good predictions that don’t hold up in real life.
TY: We are at Whistler now and just had an exciting workshop held by Todd Constable. I’ve noticed that the talks from more senior professors seem to cover a lot of papers, whereas someone more junior (like me) will talk about two papers. Is this what I should be aiming for?
SE: I think it’s a matter of personal style. But maybe you are right, and personal style changes with age. You really have two choices when you’re giving a talk. You either take a rather high flight attitude and present an overarching picture. Or you are going to dive deeper into something and go into a lot more detail.
One of the explanations for your observation is that when you are younger, you just have fewer papers you really want to talk about. When you get to a certain stage, you have a lot of papers that you can talk about, so you need to make a decision to go deep or go broad. It really has to fit your style and what you’re comfortable with.
For me, usually I want to give an overview, as we’re making great efforts to put puzzles together. We have different studies that may not be particularly related to each other, but you can see the crosstalk, and you can see the connections that I’m so excited about. That’s why I talk about so many different things.
TY: I’m on twitter and see that you (@INM7_ISN) have strong perspectives on open science and the replication crisis. Do you want to comment on that?
SE: Yes – I’m a big chimera when it comes to that. On the one hand, I’m a big proponent of open science. Most of the work we’re doing depends on shared datasets. In fact, long before the term ‘open science’ became popular, I was sharing my software. Back in 2004, I was developing the SPM anatomy toolbox. That was just open matlab code. I was still an undergraduate at the time.
So I’m a big fan of open science, but what worries me at times are certain tones of the debate. Sometimes there’s a patronizing aspect to it, a moral argument “you have to” and “how can you not”. I think that in order for open science to grow, we need to take concerns seriously. Perhaps by virtue of being around the open science, computer science environments, but also around the very traditional German medical environment, I can see that there are two sides to the argument.
Basically, in the German medical environment, I don’t think any person that would review your grants or would hire you cares too much about whether your dataset is open, or whether your software has been released. There’s a more traditional focus on publications with a lot of focus on impact factor, and grant money. This is a completely different world.
An example – if you’re a software developer then your product, your outcome or claim to fame, is the thing (a software tool, a repository, any other resource) that you distribute freely on the internet. If you are someone who spent years collecting data on a rather rare disease, recruited patients, talked a lot to them, followed them up clinically, evaluated them repeatedly and put them in the scanner, then this data is a resource, an extremely valuable resource. And it comes with the assumption that this data will allow you to get enough out of it to carry you to the next step of your career. If you are then being told “well, you are unethical and doing something terribly wrong by not immediately sharing the data freely after the first paper”, this is not putting open science in a good light.
I think open science will succeed and it will be a tremendous accelerator of knowledge. But in order for that to really happen we need to take people’s concerns seriously. There will definitely be a development at different speeds, with things moving faster in some fields than others. It’s not the case that those fields that move faster can look down upon those that are not as fast. I don’t think anyone is opposed to open science from a personal conviction, but it’s more about needs and rewards and we need to take these views seriously.
Long-term - there has to be a better incentive structure. At the moment, we are conservative about it in the German medical system – one of our main criteria for hiring is based on a cumulative impact factor – from the sum of the journal impact factors of all your papers. H-index, citations and so on do come into play, but the fact that the cumulative impact is a major evaluation criteria shows you that different fields still evaluate contributions differently. At some point, open science practices will need to be rewarded not just morally, but also practically by selection committees. That will take quite a bit of time, though.
TY: So how do we change the minds of selection committees?
SE: Well, we just mentioned that we are getting older [laughs]. In some ways there is another generation before us, those who are really not used to it. This will perhaps change over time. Then at some point we have to find criteria for quantifying open science. You can show things on the internet to a review committee – e.g. you have 500 or so matlab scripts that you are sharing – but will that give you a job? If committee members are from another field, they might not get the value, so there’s needs to be some way of quantifying these contributions objectively. Then a committee made up of psychiatrists, dentists, or structural biologists (and they often as diverse at times) can refer to some numbers that give a assessment of your open science practices. That would be a big step forward.
TY: Have you heard of the idea that once you come up with a set of numbers, they will be gamed?
SE: Sure, but this will always happen. We would like a perfect world where all decisions about hiring or promotions are done by people who are experts in your field, spend several hours scrutinizing your CV or 10 most important papers for context and read related literature to compare to. But this just won’t happen. Maybe I’m part cynic, part realistic, but most people are overloaded with committee duties, so you need some easy summary of a person. Yes this will be gamed – there’s no way around that – and we hope there is on each committee someone, who can point out the gaming aspect, and spends time to know your work it more deeply. But usually you have to convey the importance of your work to people who are not familiar with your publications or your topics.
TY: Thank you so much for this interview!
We look forward to attending Simon’s exciting keynote on Monday June 18, 2018.
GUEST POST BY CHRIS CHAMBERS
The biomedical sciences are facing a rising tide of concerns about transparency and reproducibility. Among the chief concerns are inadequate sample sizes, lack of sufficient detail in published method sections to enable replication, lack of direct replication itself (and notable failures when attempted), selective reporting of statistical analyses in order to generate desirable outcomes, suppression of negative results, lack of sharing of materials and data, and the presentation of exploratory outcomes as though they were hypothesis-driven. Collectively these problems threaten the reliability of biomedical science, theory generation, and the ability for basic science to be translated into clinical applications and other settings.
Human neuroimaging in many ways represents a perfect storm of these weaknesses, exacerbated by the fact that two of the main techniques, MRI and MEG, are extremely expensive compared with adjacent fields. Researchers using these methods face tremendous pressure to produce clear, positive, publishable results, usually in small samples.
Until recently such issues were rarely discussed openly, perhaps for fear that it would bring a relatively embryonic discipline into disrepute and collapse funding opportunities. But they have been simmering below the surface for a long time. Years before irreproducibility was headline news, at one imaging centre where I worked we noticed that we were running out of data storage faster than we were acquiring new data. After some detective work we learned why. Researchers were repeatedly analysing and reanalysing the same datasets, and with every reanalysis they were inadvertently duplicating huge quantities of raw data. The incident was illuminating about normative research practices.
When I raise this scenario with colleagues, their typical response is “Well, duplication of raw data is a silly mistake but most fMRI research is exploratory and exploration is vital for science”. This is true, of course. There is a huge amount to gain from performing reanalysis of existing, complex datasets. But the key, then, is whether such exploratory research is documented transparently as exploration. In an exploratory field, and especially one that often relies on inferential statistics, shouldn’t publications faithfully report all analyses that were attempted before settling on the ones that drove the conclusions? And does this happen in fMRI? Of course it doesn’t. Pick up a copy of any neuroimaging or cognitive neuroscience journal and you’ll find article after article purporting to test hypotheses using complex analyses, each of which is presented as though it was planned in advance. Given the pressures on researchers to produce clean results and frame them as the outcomes of hypothesis testing, it comes as no surprise that virtually no two published fMRI studies report the same analysis pipeline.
There are many solutions to this quagmire, including greater sharing of data, materials and code, and I also believe one major piece of the puzzle is preregistration of hypotheses and analysis plans. Many in the neuroimaging community are skeptical of preregistration and what it might say about our scientific approach, which sits uncomfortably between confirmatory and exploratory modes and relies on massive investment to remain afloat. When your typical experiment involves hundreds of analytic decisions, each of which can be considered “legal” yet produce slightly different outcomes, there is a natural tendency to fear that pre-specification of any particular route through the garden of forking paths will lead to unpublishable, possibly confusing findings. We thus feel pressured to apply the “human element” to bring order to chaos. Researchers will routinely spend months poring over their data and analyses using sophisticated statistical methods but almost none appreciate the risks of their own biases in interpreting one outcome among hundreds or thousands of possibilities.
This is why I have pushed hard for neuroimaging journals to offer Registered Reports (RRs). The RR format eliminates the fear of preregistration producing unpublishable results because, for RRs, the editorial decision is made before the results are known. Detailed study protocols are reviewed before researchers commence the research, and following detailed review of the theory and methods, the highest quality submissions are accepted for later publication regardless of how the results turn out. Researchers can also report additional exploratory (unregistered) analyses, clearly flagged as exploratory, and are encouraged to include preliminary experiments to validate a proposed analysis pipeline.
This week sees the launch of Registered Reports as a new article option at NeuroImage as part of a two-year pilot initiative, co-edited by me, Birte Forstmann (University of Amsterdam), Rob Leech (Kings College London), Jeanette Mumford (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Kevin Murphy (Cardiff University) and Pia Rotshtein (University of Birmingham). In addition to the usual features of Registered Reports, we are also inviting proposals for secondary analyses of existing but unobserved datasets, innovative approaches using Bayesian adaptive optimisation to combine the strengths of exploratory and confirmatory science, and review/perspectives articles on the potential costs and benefits of preregistration in neuroimaging research. Submissions are invited in any area of human neuroimaging and readers can find detailed author guidelines here.
Preregistration in neuroimaging is a high stakes intervention. The combination of high analytic flexibility combined with high risk of bias and high expense of data generation means that it has the potential to yield perhaps the greatest scientific benefits of any field to which it has been applied so far. But because of this methodological complexity, preregistration also brings some of the greatest challenges.
One such challenge is power analysis. Many of the 103 journals that currently offer RRs require high prospective power to detect the smallest effect of theoretical interest (e.g. 0.9 at Cortex, 0.95 at Nature Human Behaviour), but we know that MRI in particular is underpowered to detect theoretically plausible effect sizes, and we also know that many researchers do not have the resources to fund large studies. At one level this problem can be solved by consortia projects. Initiatives such as the Psychological Science Accelerator, Study Swap and the ENIGMA neuroimaging consortium are blazing a trail to facilitate more definitive team-oriented science. However, the main benefit of RRs lies not in the support of big science but in the elimination of publication bias and selective reporting. Therefore, to make the format as accessible as possible to the neuroimaging community, the RR format at NeuroImage will not set a minimum required statistical power or sample size. Instead we will simply require authors to justify the sample size they are proposing.
A bigger question is whether preregistration in neuroimaging is even feasible. To what extent will researchers feel able to prespecify their analysis pipelines in advance? For a RR, if an exact pipeline cannot be prespecified then researchers will be given the opportunity to prespecify data-dependent contingencies (e.g. if the data look like this, then we will apply this filter, etc.). They may also propose a blinded analysis strategy or an adaptive design in which some decisions will be post hoc, but actively protected from bias. Can such approaches succeed? I believe they can but for me the most fascinating outcome of this particular RR launch will be to discover how a community of talented analysts tackles this challenge.
Chris Chambers is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre and guest section editor for Registered Reports at NeuroImage
Since the first meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) over twenty years ago in Paris, the Organization has evolved from a primarily European and North American organization, to an international organization that draws members from over 50 countries worldwide (Figure 1).
However, the European and North American leadership and educational roles within the organization have been slower to undergo a similar evolution. This is perhaps most noticeable in the geographic distribution of Council, of which apart from very sparse representation from Australia and Cuba, has consisted of primarily Europeans and North Americans (Figure 2).
The characteristics found in Council, are also seen in the chosen educational courses (Figure 3), while the symposia have slightly greater diversity (Figure 4).
The most striking omission from leadership and educational roles comes from our colleagues in Asia. The countries of China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan make up over 15% of attendees to the meetings and poster presentations (Figure 5) and similar rates (17%) within the OHBM membership; yet have to date no representation on Council*. The goal of the Diversity and Gender Committee (DGC) is to work with Council and the Nominations Committee to foster equity in representation both within the OHBM membership and meeting attendance.
*Note: there has been one member Council originally from China, however they are currently US-based, so was designated as representing the US. In addition, a former Council member also had a joint position in China, but was designated as representing Latin America.
How are we doing with Gender?
With three of the five most recent Council members being female, the gender distribution on council is 12 males and 3 females. While this tripled the gender distribution from one year earlier, it falls lower than the gender distribution within OHBM.
The gender distribution of attendees presenting posters is 50% male, 40% female, and 10% who provided no answer. Whether these 10% represent gender fluidity or allies for gender fluidity within OHBM is not known.
While the gender distribution for poster presentation is more balanced, there is a higher proportion of males for the educational courses and symposia.
Approaches to Foster Equity
There has been much productive discussion within the Diversity and Gender Committee regarding how to foster equitable representation within OHBM. There were a number of options that we discussed, including having ‘electoral votes’ for Council members to, in a sense, ‘force’ the leadership roles to match the membership demographics. However, we are a democracy, and the primary approach that we have adopted is to provide education (in the form of data) for our members and allow our members to vote. We therefore encourage all members to consider the above data and consider potential biases when voting for your OHBM leadership.
A member of the DGC also sits on the Nominations Committee, with the goal to keep diversity in mind during the decisions surrounding the nominations. Importantly, the Council, including the chairs and members of the Nominations Committee, are motivated to see equity in representation within leadership roles in OHBM. They have attended the DGC Meeting in Vancouver and echoed their support for the Committee’s work. This support is crucial!
Microaggressions and Bias
The DGC has been charged to address inequities in gender and geography, however, we have heard whispers of both macro- and micro-aggressions within the context of the OHBM meetings. OHBM is all about science and integrity in both science and behavior. Attendees should be able to attend the meetings free from any form of bias related to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or handicaps. If events occur, whether overt or covert, it should be reported to the DGC who will then work within the OHBM leadership to assess the situation and, if indicated, to intervene. The DGC is currently working on the specifics of best practices to intervene in cases where it is warranted.
For some time now, intolerance at the political level has been propagated throughout the world. However, we as a scientific community subscribe to inclusivity from all cultures and nationalities, and value diversity. In this light, we would like to highlight some of the challenges faced by some of our international colleagues, some of their biggest achievements despite these challenges, as well as provide a platform to voice their opinions and concerns on scientific inclusion.
There are parts of the world that are far from our minds when considering brain-mapping research - Iran is certainly one of them. The last few decades have seen a massive Iranian exodus of highly trained individuals. As a result, this secluded country has produced a great number of researchers who now work and live abroad. In fact, many of us working in neuroimaging share frequent interactions with Iranian researchers and trainees, and these interactions have provided a glimpse into the state of science and education in Iran. I have come to understand that some of the top research-intensive universities in Iran in the field of brain mapping include Shahid Beheshti University, the University of Tehran, Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences. When it comes to neuroimaging research, the University of Tehran, Shahid Beheshti University and AmirKabir University figure prominently.
Researchers who work in Iran, however, see not only the challenges but also tremendous potential in Iranian research. On the heels of the Persian New Year, we caught up with two Iranian imaging scientists who wish to share their distinct views and experiences with the OHBM international community.
Part 1: Dr. Mojtaba Zarei
Jean Chen (JC): Where did you receive your training, and what inspired you to study brain imaging?
Mojtaba Zarei (MZ): I was inspired to study brain mapping by my 3rd year high-school teacher and then by the work of Frank Duffy while in the early years of medical school. I completed my MD at Shiraz University of Medical Sciences in 1990, focusing on brain electrical activity mapping. Afterwards, I moved to King’s College London for my PhD in cortical electrophysiology, mapping out sensorimotor cortex of rat after embryonic neural transplantation. In 1996, I resumed my practice in Clinical Medicine and Neurology, first at London, then at Cambridge, Oxford and Birmingham (UK). In 1999, I restarted my research in cognitive neurology under Prof. John Hodges and later in Chicago with Prof Marsel Mesulam. In 2002, I became a postdoc in the Oxford Center for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) under Prof. Paul Matthews. I went on to become Senior Clinical Fellow at FMRIB in 2006. As part of this, I established the Imaging in Neurodegeneration Group in Oxford, which was later continued by colleagues. Following that, I moved to the University of Nottingham in 2012.
JC: Given your foreign training experiences, what inspired you to move back to Iran?
MZ: Iranians commonly maintain strong family ties even after moving abroad. I moved back to Iran during a time when the government was prepared to invest heavily in neuroimaging research. In 2013, I was invited to return by the Iranian Ministry of Health to establish the National Brain Mapping Centre. This negotiation included an equipment grant of $10,000,000 USD for the centre from the Office of Vice-President for Science and Technology. I was appointed Full Professor of Shahid Beheshti University, Senior Adviser to the Ministry of Health, and the Director of National Brain Mapping Centre based in Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Science. In the Ministry of Health, I designed and implemented a national Clinician-Scientist Program for the first time in Iran. I was also instrumental in founding National Institute for Medical Research Development (NIMAD), which was modeled from the Medical Research Council in the UK. This organization is now the main independent governmental grant awarding body with seven scientific committees.
JC: How would you describe the brain-mapping landscape in Iran? In terms of major infrastructure, labs, programs, universities involved in brain-mapping research?
MZ: The major labs are mostly located in the capital, Tehran. The major players in neuroimaging research include the University of Tehran, Shahid Beheshti University and AmirKabir University of Technology. There is a 3T GE MRI in the Iman Khomeni Hospital that is shared by researchers and clinicians. There are also two research-dedicated 3 Tesla Siemens MR scanners, one at the Institute of Research in Fundamental Sciences, and the other at the National Brain Mapping Lab. There are also 1.5 T Siemens Avanto systems in Iran that can be used for research but the most active one is at Kermanshah University of Medical Sciences.
JC: Are there formal national or regional-wide meetings or organizations devoted to brain mapping?
MZ: Indeed there are. Since 2014 I have been responsible for organizing the annual Iranian Human Brain Mapping Congress, involving an international audience with eminent scientists as speakers. In addition, in 2005, I invited my former colleagues from the UK, including Heidi Johansen-berg, Matthew Rushworth and Christian Beckmann to teach at the first Brain Mapping Workshop in Iran. There is also the Iranian Society for Cognitive Science and Technology, of which I am the current president. Furthermore, at the moment, our institution runs the only regular and long term hands-on brain mapping teaching program in the country.
JC: What are the biggest challenges facing Iranian brain-mapping researchers that you would like the OHBM to be aware of?
MZ: The obvious challenge is that due to travel restrictions, Iranian researchers are not always able to attend OHBM meetings. Perhaps with developments in web platforms, this difficulty could be somewhat circumvented. Within the country however, given the limited resources, funding is not necessarily distributed in the most productive way, and there has yet to be an effective plan to utilize the infrastructure that is in place. On top of that, competition for research funding is politicized, and I fear that the requirement for political connections may be hindering research and the development of a younger generation of researchers. Any international mechanism (financial or otherwise) to directly support young and enthusiastic scientists would be welcome.
JC: Does the Iranian education system foster research and encourage young people to enter research? For example, are there scholarships available to help students enter research?
MZ: Yes, there is a lot of encouragement but it translates little to financial support. Most MSc or PhD students do not get paid during their study, which makes life difficult for them during these years. Postdoc positions (12-18 months) have increased in the last few years, particularly for those who would have obtained their PhD abroad. There are a lot of workshops, but these are often aimed at raising income.
JC: Are there government funding bodies to fund research? If so, how difficult is it to obtain funding, albeit it limited?
MZ: There are a number of grant awarding bodies that provide funding for brain mapping research, including the National Institute for Medical Research Development (NIMAD), National Science Foundation, and the Cognitive Science and Technology Council.
JC: How did you build up your lab in Iran?
MZ: When I returned to Iran, I got official permission from the Ministry of Health to establish Brain Mapping Centre at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences. I then received additional permission from the Ministry of Health to establish the National Brain Mapping Centre in Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences. However, after 2 years, with government changes, our funding was stopped. I obtained permission from the Ministry of Science and Technology to establish the Institute of Medical Science and Technology less than 2 years ago. Our researchers and labs are located in this Institute. We established international collaborations with the University of South Denmark, the University of Pennsylvania, University Nantes, and University of South California. The latter is where the ENIGMA Sleep project is. We are now leading the ENIGMA Sleep Group. More collaborations are being developed, and funding for these projects are often obtained from international bodies.
JC: What are the career prospects for your graduate students and perhaps for other foreign-trained Iranian brain-mapping researchers hoping to return to Iran?
MZ: Not much in Iran at the moment, many will leave the country for PhD positions and postdoc training. Some get recruited for teaching and research in Iranian Universities. I have written a curriculum for training PhD students specifically for brain mapping, but it has to be approved by the Ministry of Education before I can actually start the program. However, there are numerous upcoming opportunities for scientists who have been trained in the best western programs.
Part 2: Dr. Abbas Nasiraei Moghaddam
On a later occasion, I had the pleasure to speak with Dr. Abbas Nasiraei Moghaddam. Dr. Moghaddam is Associate Professor in Biomedical Engineering at Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran, one of the top universities in Iran and a frontrunner in neuroimaging research. Dr. Moghaddam is one of the premier MRI physicists in Iran, and for the past 8 years, has been director of the Advanced Medical Imaging Lab at Amirkabir University. For most of that time, he has also been affiliated with the School of Cognitive Sciences at the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM).
Jean Chen (JC): I understand that you are the founder of the Iranian Chapter of the ISMRM (International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine). Where did you receive your training, and what inspired you to study brain imaging?
Abbas Moghaddam (AM): I received my BSc in Electrical Engineering in 1995 from the University of Tehran, and completed my MSc at the same, under the guidance of Dr. Hamid Soltanian-Zadeh. Dr. Soltanian-Zadeh was the first person to teach MRI Physics in Iran (21 years ago), and he initiated me into the field of brain imaging. Afterwards, I went on to work at Washington University in St. Louis for two years (in cardiac imaging) before starting my PhD at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It was followed up by a few years of postdoc at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).
JC: Given your foreign training experiences, what inspired you to move back to Iran?
AM: Iran is my home, where my parents, siblings and roots are. Prior to returning, I was in the US for a total of seven years, but for fear of travel restrictions, I did not visit Iran even once. It made me realize that I did not want to be away from my home for so long again. However, I retained a part-time appointment at the University of Southern California to allow me to facilitate my collaborations with my American colleagues.
JC: How would you describe the brain-mapping landscape in Iran? In terms of major infrastructure, labs, programs, universities involved in brain-mapping research?
AM: In Iran, most of the MRI systems are for clinical use. There is only one research-dedicated scanner (Siemens Prisma 3 Tesla), which is at the National Brain Mapping Lab (NBML). It is sited at the University of Tehran, which is where I first got into medical imaging. The NBML is not affiliated with any institution, but provides access to all researchers in Iran. The IPM system (Siemens Trio 3 Tesla) was purchased for the IPM, but due to regulations from the Ministry of Health, it was initially sited at the Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran. After 4 years, it was recently moved to the IPM, and is now essentially dedicated to research. As a result, we now have a unique opportunity to do MRI research at the IPM. The School of Cognitive Sciences at the IPM was directed by Dr. Hossein Esteky for over 15 years. Dr. Esteky is a world-renowned vision scientist that first drew the world’s attention to neuroscience research in Iran with his publication in Nature.
Currently, the research landscape in Iran is rapidly changing, allowing us to develop new areas of research. Amirkabir University is Iran’s leader in MRI Physics research, and its School of Biomedical Engineering is one of the oldest in the world (25 years old). Here at the IPM, we have about 40 students doing research in cognitive science. When I was at UCLA, I did sequence programming, but I did not have access to it when I first returned to Iran. Now we are in the process of negotiating a research agreement with Siemens that would allow us to do sequence development here as well. This is an exciting time.
JC: What are the biggest strengths and challenges facing Iranian brain-mapping researchers that you would like the OHBM to be aware of?
AM: We have excellent human resources. The students are well trained and eager for knowledge. Often, my students would have scored near the top during the Iranian University Entrance Exams. However, for many years, neuroimaging research in Iran was heavily focused on image processing, perhaps due to our lack of research-dedicated imaging infrastructure. We have labs that publish heavily on imaging processing algorithms. But without co-developing neuroscience and imaging physics, such a research program would lose its competitive edge. This is perhaps our biggest challenge. Since 18 months ago, the newly established NBML has been providing access to imaging facilities, including MRI, EEG, TMS and fNIRS, but researchers in Iran are still trying to adapt to a culture of doing their own data acquisition.
Of course, Iranian researchers suffer from travel restrictions. For example, we are glad that this year’s meeting of the ISMRM is in Europe (Paris). Had it been in the US, we would not be able to attend. I am thankful that my international collaborations have allowed to get around such challenges. Science should have no boundaries.
JC: I understand that research funding for brain imaging is limited in Iran. In this climate, how difficult is it for you to obtain funding?
AM: The funding levels are certainly nowhere near the levels in the developed world. However, nearly everyone I know has funding, and no one has had stress due to lack of funding. This is in strong contrast with my colleagues in the US. One thing that is not well understood by the west is that in Iran, research is not nearly as costly. Students do not typically receive stipends, and scanning is fully subsidized, therefore we only need funding for traveling, publishing and so on. This makes it possible to conduct relatively big studies with little funding. Having said that, there are multiple types of grants that we need to apply for. For instance, traveling is covered by a different type of grant from regular research expenditure. The system is actually much more relaxed than in the west.
JC: How did you build up your lab in Iran?
AM: Biomedical Engineering has attracted a lot of interest from students in recent years, and I have had many applicants. When I interview students, I emphasize that I do research in Imaging and not in Image Processing. They are still getting used to the concept, but drawn by the success of my previous students. In addition, I set high standards for my students and do not hesitate to reject students that do not meet the requirements. In my institution, we have also set up joint-degree programs with foreign institutions in the UK and Australia. I would really like to expand this field of research in Iran, but that too will take time.
JC: What types of research questions are you interested in?
AM: I am interested in developing both functional and quantitative MRI sequences to improve brain imaging. In terms of fMRI, we are interested in improving the neural specificity of the imaging technique as well as developing brain-connectivity processing methods. In quantitative MRI, we are developing new imaging technique for T1 and T2 mapping.
I first learned MR Physics at the University of Tehran, when I worked with Dr. Hamid Soltanian-Zadeh; this continues to be a big focus for my research. In the US, my research was in cardiac imaging, but when I moved back to Iran and started my affiliation with the IPM (at the recommendation of Dr. Soltanian-Zadeh), I started to do brain-imaging research. One of my recently graduated PhD students worked on developing a new MRI sequence. As we do not yet have a research agreement with Siemens, he did this work in collaboration with the group of Dr. David Norris in the Netherlands, and spent 15 months in the Norris lab. This resulted in a patent and 2 articles, and it was the first thesis on MR Physics in Iran. I have another student working on structural and functional brain connectivity. She worked with Patric Hagmann in Switzerland. This is mainly on image processing and neuroscience.
JC: Finally, what are the career prospects for your graduate students and perhaps for other foreign-trained Iranian brain-mapping researchers hoping to return to Iran?
AM: As I mentioned, we are hungry for MRI expertise, but the job situation in Iran is very uncertain. Brain Imaging is still a young field, and we certainly need more researchers to help us build up the programs. Meanwhile, I do encourage my students to see other places and gain other experiences. Many of my students have gone on to study in labs abroad, including Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.
Postamble (JC): As Dr. Moghaddam said, science should have no boundaries. What may seem to be challenges are also potential opportunities. Iranian scientists are passionate about their research as we are in the rest of the world. They are defying great odds to build up a research program and to provide their young generation with new opportunities. Also, although the current involvement of female scientists in brain-mapping research accounts for <10% of all users, the increasing dominance of female trainees at the graduate level will likely change this. In an installment about Iranian trainees, you will also hear the thoughts of early career researchers from Iran and around the world.
By Elizabeth DuPre and Kirstie Whitaker
This month we continued our Open Science Demo Call series by speaking to Tim van Mourik Eleftherios Garyfallidis and Malin Sandström about the communities they’re building and supporting to make everyone’s lives easier through better open source software tools.
After a few technical difficulties (Kirstie’s laptop inexplicably deleted the “broadcast” button so we were all chatting to each other without being able to include our viewers in the conversation!) Tim introduced Porcupine. Porcupine is a tool to visually program your analysis. By dragging and dropping modules that represent functions in your analysis, you can quickly build an insightful analysis and then Porcupine will provide the code that you or others need to run on your own data. All code and documentation is openly available at the project’s GitHub repository, and this is where you can also give any feedback or suggestions. Alternatively you can find Tim in the BrainHack Slack team (click here if you need an invitation to join) or via email at email@example.com.
Eleftherios told us about DIPY, a global, community-supported, software project for computational neuroanatomy, focusing mainly on structural and diffusion MRI. DIPY implements a broad range of algorithms for denoising, registration, reconstruction, microstructure, tracking, clustering, visualization, and statistical analysis of MRI data. You can get involved and help the DIPY team in many different ways, but Eleftherios particularly encouraged OHBM members to test their data with the DIPY algorithms and provide feedback on any challenges they have running the code. You can ask questions in the team’s live chatroom or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Linking very nicely to Eleftherios’ call for student applicants to work on the DIPY team’s suggested projects was Malin Sandström, INCF’s community manager who manages the organization’s Google Summer of Code (GSoC) program. GSoC allows students to be financed with stipends for their work on open source software over the summer. Open source organizations in the project contribute project ideas and mentors. INCF is participating as a GSoC mentoring organization for the 8th year in a row, with mentors from the worldwide INCF community and a wide range of neuro-tool projects.
You can browse the INCF project list to learn more about the summer plans. If you were too late to take part this year, we encourage you to keep an eye on the INCF GSoC projects page for updates on future rounds. If you have a project idea you would like to mentor with INCF for next year, get in touch at email@example.com by 1st December 2018.
Our next call will be on Thursday April 26th at 7pm BST (check your local time zone). If you’d like to nominate yourself or someone else to be featured on these monthly calls, please add their information at this github issue, or email the host of the calls Kirstie Whitaker at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the OSSIG google group to receive reminders each month.
by Souad El Bassam and Nikola Stikov
OHBM has members throughout the world. We used last year's meeting as an opportunity to interview some of them to find out about the international reach of OHBM.
In our Spanish language video, you can learn about LABMAN and the way developing countries try to keep up with the growing cost of brain mapping research. Maria Bobes, the president of LABMAN, speaks to Manuel Hinojosa about the importance of involving more Latin American researchers in brain mapping and the crucial role of LABMAN in raising awareness of the challenges facing researchers in this area of research in Latin America.
Our Dutch video features Emma Sprooten from Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour and Raissa Schiller from Erasmus MC – Sophia Children’s hospital, junior researchers who are interested in cognitive and behavioural research. They briefly talk about their impression of the conference before moving on to speak about Raissa’s PhD research on cognitive impairment in children who were critically ill as newborns.
Finally, the Balkan video features researchers from Macedonia (Nikola Stikov), Bulgaria (Kalina Christoff and Bogdan Draganski), Serbia (Bratislav Misic), Bosnia (Branislava Curcic-Blake) and Croatia (Lana Vasung) trying to communicate with each other in their respective languages. Among the topics discussed are work-life balance and the many reasons for attending (and skipping) the OHBM conference.
Our international outreach does not stop here. We have videos in 7 more languages, including Catalan, Czech, Greek, Hebrew, Portuguese, Slovak and Mandarin. If anybody reading this wants to help with the transcription, we will be very happy to add these videos to our YouTube channel. If interested, please get in touch with Nikola Stikov (email@example.com). Let's show our international community that the language of OHBM is universal!
P.S. A big "thank you" to Job van den Hurk, Amaia Benitez and Olivera Evrova for the transcription and translation of the videos.