By Shruti Vij
To advance human brain mapping we need to develop and identify novel facets of brain function, and understand how they are affected in clinical disorders. Like any other field, we rely on young investigators to bring innovation and creativity. And when we find stellar individuals that contribute towards the advancement of the entire field, we reward them, with a Young Investigator Award! This year’s OHBM Young Investigator award winner is one such impressive researcher with a reputation for making significant contributions to cognitive neuroscience – Lucina Uddin.
Katherine Karlsgodt from UCLA who nominated her for the award introduces her as “a researcher with remarkable focus and productivity”, highlighting that:
A remarkable feature of Dr. Uddin’s work is her ability to bring together sophisticated neuroimaging analytic approaches with important and insightful theoretical questions. As one example, over the last several years she has developed and tested a novel model of network function focused on the role of the insula (and the salience network as a whole) in large scale brain network dynamics. She has supported this model empirically with a series of innovative papers in high impact journals, presenting the theoretical development of her model and its relevance to understanding autism. Consequently, she has become a sought-after speaker for many national and international courses on neural connectivity, an impressive accomplishment for someone relatively early in her career. I have no doubt that she will continue to apply her strong work ethic, acute intellect, and leadership abilities to this project and that the results will have considerable impact on our field.
As a postdoctoral fellow in her lab, it is an immense personal pleasure to interview Lucina Uddin and to discover the makings of a talented Young Investigator.
Shruti Gopal Vij (SV): Congratulations Lucina on winning the young investigator award at OHBM this year! Tell us a little about yourself --- where you come from and how you grew up.
Lucina Uddin (LU): To make a long story short, I was born in Bangladesh and my parents immigrated to the United States when I was less than a year old. So, I spent most of my time growing up in southern California and then moving from coast to coast to get my postdoctoral training at NYU and Stanford till I finally ended up here in Miami!
SV: Do you like it here?
LU: I love it here. I live on the beach and I really enjoy it!
SV: What was your first reaction when you were notified that you were the winner of this year’s OHBM Young Investigator Award? How did you feel?
LU: I was really happy because it is always great to have your work recognized. I was also surprised mainly because if you look at the previous 21 years’ awardees for the Young Investigator award, I don’t fit the profile of being a white male researcher. So, I was really surprised to be honest! But I have to say that I think the OHBM leadership has done a wonderful job in recent years in addressing issues of gender and diversity in the organization both at the program committee level and at the leadership level. So, I am happy to see these issues really come to the forefront now.
SV: When did you start thinking about cognitive neuroscience and developmental neuroimaging?
LU: I went to UCLA, which is a really large school with over a hundred and thirty majors for undergrads to choose from. It was overwhelming, but at the same time I did what I guess any 18-year-old would do. I looked at the list and thought about which one seemed cool to me. Neuroscience jumped out at me, and so I picked that as my major and to this day I haven’t regretted that decision. And then as all my friends started preparing for med school, I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to become a doctor. The other career path that seemed viable was research, and I ended up having the good fortune of staying at UCLA for my PhD with a great group of mentors who basically let me do what I wanted. That was where I got to just explore cognitive neuroscience, learn from the experts and figure out what really interested me. And I am still doing it to this day.
SV: Why do you feel so passionately about developmental neuroimaging and autism research?
LU: Autism is a very interesting disorder. I was very excited when I got the opportunity to do my first neuroimaging study on autism as a graduate student, collaborating with Susan Bookheimer and Mirella Dapretto. It was just fascinating to me how different individuals with autism are from each other. There is such heterogeneity in the disorder, and there are also varying levels of abilities. There are severe impairments in some individuals with the disorder, and in other cases there are exceptional skills. I just thought it was a really unique condition and I really wanted to learn more about the brain basis of it. So I continued that research as a postdoc and still do it now as a PI.
SV: What has been your scientific approach to excellence?
LU: Oh, I don’t know about that! But I really value collaborations with friends and colleagues all over the world and I encourage students and trainees at the lab to look outside of the lab for growth and learning. The reason for that is that I have a background in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and because I am trained in a particular way, there are some things that I am great at and other things that I really struggle with – statistics and programming are not my strong suit. So, I always try to surround myself with computer scientists and engineers and other people that I can learn from and hopefully we can have a symbiotic relationship. At least that’s the way I see it. But I think everyone stands to benefit from collaborations. And I try to push that in all of our projects.
SV: How have your life experiences affected your mentoring methods?
LU: I mean being a mentor is like being a parent (I imagine) except you have a lot more kids. So you say “I am not going to do it that way” or “I will try to emulate this mentor that I really enjoyed”. I think I have learned a lot from everyone I came in contact with. My graduate advisor Eran Zaidel always brought food to lab meetings and I thought “That’s a great idea! Why shouldn’t there be food at lab meetings?”. We always had great discussions and he always let us pursue exactly what we wanted to. So, I have taken that approach quite a bit, which is trying to figure what people want to study and making sure that there are no obstacles for them. Trying to put people in touch with the right collaborators for the right idea and just being open to new ideas. And that means people are going to fail, and I am open to that. I think everyone needs to fail and learn from failure. So, I think my own mentoring has been sort of hands off. Do what you want and I am going to try to point you towards the resources that will help.
SV: Have you had a singular inspiration in your life?
LU: Well I have to say that it was my father. He came to the US at age 34 to complete his PhD in comparative literature. He basically started his life all over again, learned a new language and experienced a whole new culture. And you know a lot of immigrants do that and succeed. It is definitely a lot harder to do than what I had to do which is live in the same country most of my life (with the exception of a six month teaching stint at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh in 2010). So, I consider myself really lucky and try to make the most of it.
SV: I guess this year has been really exciting for you! You got your tenure and now the Young Investigator Award! What is the next step for you?
LU: Well, people always say once you get tenure, you can do whatever you want. But I have always done whatever I want. I haven’t particularly done things in pursuance of tenure or specific types of research because they were trendy. If anything, I was working in resting state fMRI in 2006 when really it wasn’t trendy, it was very fringe. People sort of looked at you funny if you said you are looking into intrinsic networks or resting state networks. They didn’t take it seriously until much later. So I did what I thought would be interesting and I am going to continue to do that. And one way to capitalize on recent trends in open science is to take “big-data” approaches. The Human Connectome Project and many other sources have become available for researchers to mine. It is great for discovery and good for students. I think we are going to continue to go more into neuroinformatics and computational neuroscience. I am hoping that in a few years, I will have time to take a sabbatical and visit a few big computational neuroscience labs and learn more about it.
SV: Do you have any significant advice that you want to give to the OHBM mentees?
LU: My advice to mentees is don’t take anybody’s advice! Because it is hard to glean truths from other people’s experiences. I think you have to be honest with yourself at every step of the career. People always ask advice about personal questions and nobody’s responses to these questions are going to be necessarily applicable to you. So I think you have to assess your own needs and wants in terms of both your career and personal life. And I have done things both professionally and personally that I am proud of and others that I regret. So, I am not in any position to give any advice other than to say make sure that you are honest with yourself when making big life decisions.
SV: Last, University of Miami is now launching a Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Program which you are spearheading. Can you tell us a little about it?
LU: Yeah. I am excited that we are starting this cognitive and behavioral neuroscience program here. There is a real need for training in this area and we previously didn’t have the resources in place for that. But now we have the faculty and curricula in place. We have an excellent group and most of the necessary courses. We are excited to take graduate students and I am hoping to bring some of the great things I learned from UCLA’s neuroscience program to the University of Miami and continue to grow the program.
SV: Thank you for all these wonderful insights into what makes this year’s OHBM Young Investigator an accomplished researcher. Congratulations!
As the interview wrapped up and I headed out to my office next door, I was left with immense inspiration for the future of my own academic career as an immigrant woman in science!