This interview took place December 8, 2016 at the Educational Neuroimaging Center, Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, Technion, Israel.
BY TZIPI HOROWITZ-KRAUS
If there is one name in the field of neuroscience that is known and appreciated by many young researchers, it is likely Prof. Karl Friston. He is one of the founders of brain mapping, the father of multiple theoretical models, and the creator of tools that brain mappers use to better understand that most unique organ, the brain. Brain mappers from around the world recognize and acknowledge the contributions of Prof. Friston and their impact on our understanding of brain function and organization.
I recently had the honor and pleasure to meet Prof. Friston during his visit to the Technion in Israel. Following his fascinating talk entitled “I am, therefore I think”, we met for a cup of tea in the Educational Neuroimaging Center, to discuss some of the most pressing questions in the field of neuroimaging—questions that only Prof. Friston, with his vast experience and vision, can answer.
Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus (THK): If you are riding in an elevator, how would you describe your research and what you do for a living to person you are rising with?
Karl Friston (KF): My working week can be divided into two - my day job and my theoretical work on the weekends. My day job is to model and analyze brain imaging data and provide tools that allow for Discovery Science with neuroimaging. On Sundays, I indulge myself with theoretical neurobiology, computational neuroscience and more abstract theorizing about how the brain works and what it does. I do this in the fond hope [that is sometimes realized and sometimes not] that having a global, theoretical perspective on what the brain does will inform and constrain its empirical study. This theorizing helps with many practical aspects of developing schemes and models that enable people to pose questions to their data – and ensures this process is explicit transparent and rigorous. In short, I am largely an enabler during the week and a theorist at the weekend.
THK: What motivated you to go into that area of Neuroscience?
KF: From the age of 15, I wanted to be a neuroscientist but neuroscience as we know it today didn't exist at that time. For me, it was some form of mathematical psychology. I therefore went to my careers advisor and told him I wanted to be a psychologist, but I also wanted to do physics. He told me that “if you want to be a psychologist, you have to be a Doctor first”. He clearly thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist – and neither of us knew the difference! I followed his advice and diligently went to university (studying physics and medicine). I spent six years of my life becoming a doctor, before realizing my mistake.
Having committed to being a doctor, I then had to get back to brain research as quickly as possible: there were two routes in those days – Neurology or Psychiatry. At that time, psychiatry was – and still is – very exciting (in terms of things like neuropharmacology and addiction research). So I became a psychiatrist and, as soon as I qualified, took the first opportunity to enter research. All this meant that I was 28 before I began my research career, starting with psychopharmacology and then Schizophrenia research – inspired by my mentors in biological psychiatry. Luckily, brain imaging came along at precisely that time. It was lucky because it meant I could use my undergraduate training in physics and math.
THK: In the last meeting of the Organization of Human Brain Mapping you were awarded with the “Glass Brain Award” for your great contribution to the field of Brain Mapping. You gave an inspiring speech and acknowledged the role of friendship and colleagues in your scientific career. In the competitive world of science, it is sometimes challenging to remember these important values. Will you be able to share one personal story with me where it was friendship and collaborative work that resulted in a significant scientific accomplishment?
He was looking at the geometry of the tips of the maple leafs. Within a few months, Alan managed to supplant his maple leaves with neuroimaging data. A couple of years later, I met Keith (and one of his heroes – Prof. Robert Adler; now here in Electrical Engineering at the Technion and the reason that I'm here) and I learned about the utility of Random Field Theory, which is the basis of SPM (http://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/spm/). What came out of our collaboration illustrates a practical thing about international friendships: you can only make them work – when you're both very busy – through young people. It's very much like parents who are terribly distracted by other commitments but who share a common investment in their children. There were several young people that Keith and I engaged by inventing a question; for example, how do you estimate ‘smoothness’, when the smoothness of your data is not uniform. These problems were essentially an excuse to ‘adopt a child’ who would inevitably ‘grow up’ very quickly. A nice example of this was Jonathan Taylor, who was Keith’s PhD student who came to spend a year in the Technion with Prof. Adler. Someone who made Keith and I ‘proud parents’ is Jean-Baptiste Poline. Jean-Baptiste went on to be the first winner of the OHBM Education in Neuroscience Award. This joint supervision became a good model for all my collaborative innovations. There are many similar stories. The most recent arose from a friendship with Pascal Fries: we ‘adopted’ another young person (Andre Bastos) who is now doing a wonderful job dealing with hard core issues in electrophysiology and predictive coding. I should note one's ‘children’ generally become more expert than their parents, which is a hallmark of good parenting.
THK: What advice do you have for a young graduate student who is interested in pursuing a career in neuroscience?
KF: Develop a breadth of skills, interests, and perspectives. Then build a little pyramid on this broad base as the years roll on. You will naturally hone in on the things you find attractive and engaging. Usually, these are the sorts of things you knew you wanted to do at the beginning, but they only reveal themselves clearly with time. Breadth is the key thing; in terms of the people you can work with and in terms of conceptual tools you bring to the table.
For me, math is an important part of a broad base. I often meet people who say “I wish I learned more mathematics when I was younger”. I remember doing trigonometry and thinking "This is rubbish, when on earth am I going to use all these sines and cosines?" However, I guarantee within a year you will find yourself in a situation where you need a seemingly useless skill set (even trigonometry) – and you will be cross with yourself if you ignored the earlier opportunity. In short, keep your options open. That would be my advice.
I find that lots of young scientists are often worried about their next step. I've never worried about my next job. My advice is to make a sensible decision at every little point in your career path. All you have to do is to make the right small choices and everything will be fine (if you keep your options open).
Karl Friston is a theoretical neuroscientist and authority on brain imaging. He invented statistical parametric mapping (SPM), voxel-based morphometry (VBM) and dynamic causal modelling (DCM). These contributions were motivated by schizophrenia research and theoretical studies of value-learning formulated as the dysconnection hypothesis of schizophrenia. Mathematical contributions include variational Laplacian procedures and generalized filtering for hierarchical Bayesian model inversion. Friston currently works on models of functional integration in the human brain and the principles that underlie neuronal interactions. His main contribution to theoretical neurobiology is a free-energy principle for action and perception (active inference). Friston received the first Young Investigators Award in Human Brain Mapping (1996) and was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (1999). In 2000 he was President of the international Organization of Human Brain Mapping. In 2003 he was awarded the Minerva Golden Brain Award and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2006. In 2008 he received a Medal, College de France and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of York in 2011. He became of Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology in 2012, received the Weldon Memorial prize and Medal in 2013 for contributions to mathematical biology and was elected as a member of EMBO (excellence in the life sciences) in 2014 and the Academia Europaea in (2015). He was the 2016 recipient of the Charles Branch Award for unparalleled breakthroughs in Brain Research and the Glass Brain Award, a lifetime achievement award by OHBM (the Organization for Human Brain Mapping)in the field of human brain mapping. He holds Honorary Doctorates from the University of Zurich and Radboud University
Special thanks to Jeanette Mumford for her assistance in transcribing and editing this interview.