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Growing Up In Science @Oxford with Dr André Marques-Smith
July 31, 2020 @ 16:00 - 18:00
Have you ever wondered what your advisor struggled with as a graduate student? What they struggle with now?
Growing up in science is a conversation series featuring personal narratives of becoming and being a scientist, with a focus on the unspoken challenges of a life in science. Growing up in Science was started in 2014 at New York University and is now worldwide. This article describes the origin and impact of the series.
At a typical Growing up in Science event, one faculty member shares their life story, with a focus on struggles, failures, doubts, detours, and weaknesses. Common topics include dealing with expectations, impostor syndrome, procrastination, luck, rejection, conflicts with advisors, and work-life balance, life outside academia but these topics are always embedded in the speaker’s broader narrative.
Cortex Club is hosting its first Growing up in science event!
Join us on Friday the 31st July at 4pm for hearing the unofficial story of Dr André Marques-Smith, computational neuroscientist at CoMind (read his official and unofficial story below, and on the GUIS website https://www.cns.nyu.edu/events/growingupinscience/unofficial.html#AndreMarques-Smith).
Details to join the talk will be circulated via the mailing list (to join our mailing list, follow the instructions at https://cortexclub.com/join-us/). The event will also be live streamed on our YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/nvrPppepofY
Dr Andrè Marques-Smith: The Official Story
Andre Marques-Smith was born in Portugal, to a mixed Portuguese-Scottish background and parents who are academics in Mathematics and Chemistry. From his early childhood he showed a fascination with all things scientific, especially paleontology and astronomy. In his teenage years he discovered Biology and Psychology, which led to him pursuing an undergraduate in Psychology at Universidade do Minho and later a PhD programme in Neuroscience at Oxford University. Working with Zoltan Molnar and Simon Butt, he mapped out the development of early thalamocortical and intracortical excitatory-inhibitory circuits. In a postdoc with Beatriz Rico at King’s College London, he added a molecular-genetic perspective to this research, focusing on the impact of different genes on the development of inhibitory cortical circuits. As his interests developed into Systems Neuroscience, he took up a second postdoctoral position with Adam Kampff, at the Sainsbury-Wellcome Centre, where he recorded from the same neuron in vivo using Neuropixels probes and patch-clamp, in order to gather an open ground-truth dataset to be used for development and benchmarking of spike-sorting algorithms. After learning and honing new skills for tackling mature brain structure and function, Andre secured a Henry-Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship to pursue the regulation of cortico-cortical communication by thalamic inhibitory circuits in the labs of Sonja Hofer, Mike Halassa and Adam Kampff. Working on the visual system, Andre became exposed to work in Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning, which led to him self-training in parallel on these topics. An opportunity arose to apply his neuroscience and AI skills to Brain-Computer Interfaces at the deep tech startup CoMind Technologies, where Andre now works as a Neuroscientist.
Dr Andrè Marques-Smith: The Unofficial Story
Andre was a nerdy and shy kid growing up who liked to sit down eating crackers and reading books about dinosaurs, planets and the adventures of Donald Duck & the Three Ducklings. Noticing his early nerdiness and shyness, his parents (rightfully) warned him off academia through dinner time conversations about teaching and admin loads and departmental politics. It worked temporarily. Andre outgrew his dinosaurs, planets & Donald Duck phase, replacing it with a goth phase comprising Byron, Shelley, Cradle of Filth and Norwegian Black Metal. As a teenager he had no interest whatsoever in Science and dreamt of exploring the darkest depths of the human psyche through Art. In the course of his pitiful pursuits in the fine arts (lol), Andre found out he was actually a good writer and decided to become a novelist or a poet. He read and wrote copiously to hone his skills until his final year of high school, when he learnt about Darwin and the theory of evolution. Darwin’s beautiful idea was a spark that ignited a wildfire in the woods of Andre’s young mind and the world of biology opened up like a forest clearing to him. However, Andre struggled to decide on what to study for university. After failed pursuits in Biology and Anthropology, Andre settled on a Psychology undergraduate at Universidade do Minho. He was exposed to neuroscience, cognitive science, animal behaviour, learning and perception through mentors Armando Machado and Oscar Goncalves and came to realise “Neuroscience” was the name of the thing he really wanted to learn about, so he decided to try for a PhD. He was accepted into a programme in Oxford, during the course of which the brilliant lectures of Jeremy Taylor motivated him to do his project on developmental neuroscience and early circuit formation with Zoltan Molnar and Ole Paulsen. Andre struggled a lot with the project and Ole’s move to Cambridge, which he had been aware of when he decided to do the project but had (stupidly) underestimated the impact of. Two thirds of the PhD were all about impostor syndrome, struggles with techniques and lack of results positive or negative. Andre worked tirelessly but he grew withdrawn, depressed and sullen. He considered quitting many times. His fortunes would change with the arrival of Simon Butt, who would become his new electrophysiology advisor. Andre and Simon struck a once-in-a-lifetime partnership, and a backup project mapping cortical inputs to subplate neurons started to yield results. This led to another project on a mysterious L5b interneuron population and to involvement in a project in Simon’s lab mapping early interneuron-pyramidal connectivity. A combination of lucky stroke, great mentorship and hardcore motivation and work ethic led to Andre finishing his PhD with 3 manuscript submissions and a newfound enthusiasm. He went on to do a postdoc with Beatriz Rico at King’s College. Andre’s ego was pumped at this point and he wanted to show the world of neuroscience what he could do. This proved to make for a less than ideal fit to the team projects he would be involved in at the Rico lab. Andre enjoyed working on these projects and how much he learnt from them, publishing several papers with Beatriz, but ultimately his interests were shifting to Systems Neuroscience. He was eager to explore some ideas he had on high-order thalamocortical structures which were influenced by the work of his hero Ray Guillery (RIP). This brought him to the lab of Adam Kampff at SWC, where he would take on an open science project recording from the same neuron with Neuropixels probes and patch-clamp, after which he would be completely free to pursue his questions. The project went well and through Adam’s great mentorship, Andre learnt about the value of Open Science and team projects (which he had previously underappreciated erroneously). All throughout, Andre had been studying and writing his project on high-order thalamocortical networks and decided to submit it for a Henry-Wellcome fellowship. He had applied twice before for this fellowship and hadn’t even gotten past the prelim stage because he didn’t have papers and that’s what they actually care about. Sonja Hofer, who was interested in similar questions, joined SWC in the meantime. Andre began discussing the project with her, and Sonja played a key role in honing Andre’s ideas. He got the fellowship and started to work on the project. After a very productive 6-months, he took a summer vacation and basically collapsed, burnt out by the cumulative pressures and problems of Academia. He had struggled with many of these issues in the past, at every stage of his career, but it was as if they were all catching up now at the same time. He took stock of the privileged situation he was in: a prestigious fellowship, wonderful colleagues and state-of-the-art conditions. This was as good as it could get, yet somehow he didn’t feel happy. He imagined the best-case scenario for the 3 years ahead: publishing multiple big papers from the fellowship and securing a group leader position at one of the top 5 UK universities. This had been his goal for the past 12 years yet now, when it appeared before him, it no longer made him excited. Andre felt the individualism of the academic career track led to researchers taking on projects of very limited scope and utterly lacking in any measurable societal impact. What was the point of it all? Ironically given his earlier thinking, he now felt working as part of a horizontal team of talented people would allow him to tackle bigger ideas and deliver consequential results which would actually help the lives of other people. He began studying AI, Machine Learning and Deep Neural Networks in order to start a new career. Similar to Darwin’s great idea, this field of study inspired Andre hugely and he became eager to learn more. He took a sabbatical to concentrate on these studies and find career opportunities and began thinking of applying his new learnings to the field of BCI. At this point he met a brilliant young CEO and founder, who offered him the opportunity to work on building a non-invasive BCI, bridging his interests in neuroscience and AI. Andre accepted it, started a new chapter, kissed Academia goodbye and never looked back. He’s a very happy man now.