By AmanPreet Badhwar
“In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike. And no two journeys along the same path are alike.” ― Paulo Coelho
My first OHBM annual meeting experience was in 2015. I did not know many researchers in the field, having just started my postdoc in human brain imaging. On top of that, I was attending OHBM 2015 without my postdoc supervisor in tow (who knew the community well), and worried about not finding my place in the human brain mapping community. Luckily, I had met Daniel Margulies a few months prior to OHBM 2015. Not only did he make it a point to introduce me to the community at this particular annual meeting, but I also found myself happily involved in the many grassroot initiatives of the Neuro Bureau: ranging from brainhacks to sci-art exhibits to open science initiatives. Fast-forward to today, I have developed my own unique voice in the OHBM community, and it is in large part due to guidance from Daniel and his free-spirited compatriots during those formative moments in time. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with Daniel on several projects, both scientific and sci-artistic, and recently had the pleasure of interviewing him at the inaugural BrainHack School 2018 in Montreal.
AmanPreet Badhwar (AB): How would you describe your research to a random person on the street?
Daniel Margulies (DM): When explaining my research to a random person on the street, I usually gesture to my head to illustrate that I study the brain. If there is time for further elaboration, I explain that I study how areas are spatially arranged and connected to one another using MRI, and the consequences of this layout for the possibilities and constraints of cognition.
AB: What projects are you currently working on? Could you comment on some of the breakthroughs and bottlenecks you have encountered?
DM: I’ve recently moved my lab from Leipzig to Paris, which has provided a refreshing opportunity to set new research priorities and establish new collaborations. We recently identified a gradient in cortical organization that spans from primary cortical areas to the regions of the default-mode network, so my current projects are extending this observation to explore its consequences for cognition, cross-species comparative studies, and exploring how the gradient can be divided into zones of cross-modal integration.
AB: Can you tell me a bit about your career path?
DM: I studied humanities in undergrad, but ended up in neuroscience through a chance encounter years ago at a bus stop in New York that resulted in an invitation to join Xavier Castellano’s lab at New York University as a research assistant. I was soon introduced to neuroimaging data analysis by Mike Milham and imparted with a love for neuroanatomy by Michael Petrides. A similar twist of fate landed me in Berlin a few years later as a graduate student with Arno Villringer. I was very fortunate to have mentors that were immeasurably supportive and offered me opportunities to pursue my various interests. This all came together when I started my own lab in 2012 at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.
AB: What is your take on multimodal research? How have you integrated this within your own research project?
DM: The complexity of various fields in neuroimaging today has resulted in a level of specialization that makes it challenging to take a wider perspective. I believe one of the major challenges we face is in thinking across different methods and vocabularies to construct unified models that underlie these diverse, and at times divergent measures. As my core project aims to understand some basic principles of how features of the cerebral cortex are spatially arranged, perspectives from multiple modalities are central towards achieving that goal. We make use of the macaque monkey tract-tracing literature, high-resolution MRI, meta-analytic and task-based approaches… So much data is openly available these days that conducting multimodal studies is really becoming more the norm than the exception.
AB: If “like connects to like” in the brain, then tell us a bit about what makes the brain work as a unit?
DM: “Like connects to like” is a principle that has been introduced to describe preferential long-range connections between cortical areas that have similar degrees of laminar differentiation. It’s pithy and captures an elegant multimodal phenomenon of cortical organization. Nevertheless, various other principles are also critical to cortical organization, such as extensive connectivity between neighboring areas. Although there is a substantial focus in brain mapping of the differences and discrete boundaries between areas and large-scale systems, one challenge that your question illustrates is to also consider how these distinctions are integrated into a functional whole. There is little doubt that the brain is highly interconnected — a factor that is important to remember when delineating various subdivisions.
AB: You are a Neuro Bureau member. Could you tell me a bit about the Neuro Bureau?
DM: I started the Neuro Bureau with Cameron Craddock back in 2009 or so. When we first got going, all we had was the name, which we felt at the time was a solid enough starting point to merit a purpose. We developed the Neuro Bureau into a cross-institutional and cross-disciplinary support group for early career researchers with the aim of providing the neuroimaging community with projects and initiatives that weren’t traditionally credited. This includes the Open Science Gala at OHBM, the brain-art competition and exhibition, and the preprocessed data initiatives. The idea was to infuse our community with new perspectives, to render it more accessible to other disciplines, and to make it in some ways more playful. Towards those goals we also encouraged a spirit of open scientific practice, which grew into Brainhack a few years later. Early on I received the advice to help create the research community I wanted to be a part of — the Neuro Bureau is our way of doing just that.
AB: Could you comment on the Neuro Bureau’s role in mentoring trainees?
DM: I’ve never really thought of the Neuro Bureau as a mentoring-oriented organization. Mentoring implies a mentor and mentee, and the Neuro Bureau has always had more the spirit of a tree house, along with all the big ideas, camaraderie, shoe-string operations, and mischievousness that tree houses tend to have. Good mentorship is so critical when joining the neuroimaging community, but so is finding your own group of peers — a kind of research family. For us, the Neuro Bureau provides a space to try out new ideas, seek support when faced with the various challenges of research, and to feel that we have a place of our own in the wider community.
AB: Thank you Daniel for taking the time to sit down for this interview. Looking forward to your keynote at OHBM 2018.