Life of a Donders PhD: an interview thing

By Suhas Vijayakumar on May 18, 2017

An interview thing was published as part of “The Life of…” series on the Donders PhD newsletter. Even though this page falls under the category of blatant self promotion, I shouldn’t deny the fact that it feels good to talk about oneself. That and also I spent some time answering those questions. So, in the event of the institute servers crashing (yes, I know they are backed up. Don’t reason with me on this one.), I just thought it’ll be good to re-post it here before it’s gone (Interesting side story. I admire Aaron Swartz a lot. A lot is an understatement. Anyway, his blog - Raw Thought was down for a day (server cash, I assume) and I’d lost it! I did manage to calm myself down after finding Josh Leitzel’s repository of the entire blog, though). So, here is a repost of the interview that was originally published somewhere there.


Date of original publication: 1 February 2017

What’s your name, nationality, current function, and department?

I’m Suhas Vijayakumar, Indian, currently a PhD student at the Cognitive Neuroecology Lab at the DCC.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A scientist. For as long as I can remember, I’ve answered “a scientist!”, every time an adult asked that question. By a scientist, I mostly meant working with funny looking glass flasks, with colorful liquids boiling in some, and fumes gently rising and traveling through some others. I even wore safety goggles in my imaginary lab that was semi-circular in shape and had secret doors for some reason.

What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?

Google has played an important role in designing my career path so far. For a very long time I thought I was going to do research in physics. But that desire dramatically decreased when I was introduced to advanced physics during my physics, math and electronics bachelor’s studies. One of my profs recommended this book by Sir Roger Penrose – The Emperor’s New Mind. And ever since then I was convinced that whatever little physics I knew could be applied to understanding the brain. This is where Google comes in. I literally searched for “neuroscience research internship india” and went and interned at the language, literacy and music lab, at the National Brain Research Centre in India for a summer, which was one of the top 5 search results that Google suggested. Then I continued to work there as a research assistant for a year.

When it was time to leave, I asked Google, “best research masters neuroscience europe” and took its advice to come here for a research master’s in cognitive neuroscience, with a specialization in brain networks and neuronal communication, or as the rest of the Donderians call it - track 4. During my master’s thesis project, Rogier Mars (my current supervisor) and I got to talking about doing good research, science communication, open science and such ideas. We seemed to agree on many things, but my research interests did not perfectly align with his at the time. When he advertised for the PhD position, we talked again and in response to my apprehension he said, “I personally think the most important thing during a PhD is that you get a good chance to see what’s out there, and you should find a position where you feel you have a good supervisor who’s willing to invest in you and where you can learn.” and that convinced me that I was going to be in good hands.

Who are you working with and what do these collaborations look like?

Here, I work with Rogier Mars and Pieter Medendorp. For our first project, we are comparing brains of different species and identifying networks that connect the frontal and parietal regions of the brain. We use an existing database from Oxford for the macaque brains and the database of Human Connectome Project for human brains.

What aspect of your job is or has been a challenge for you?

I get distracted easily. As a consequence, I get extremely interested (and then involved) in projects or events that require different set of skills and different amount of time. When you’re pursuing a PhD, nobody is pushing you to do one thing at a time, from 9 until 5, or some routine like that, nor are there fixed hard deadlines to meet every week. So I find it difficult to regulate my enthusiasm towards a project at any given time and to keep it relatively constant. I have times when I’m super excited and loads of work gets done in very little time, or my interest decides to hibernate and it’ll be weeks before I’m equally excited again. Thankfully, having regular meetings where ideas are discussed more than specific steps, noticing small progresses and being accountable to friends have helped.

Who inspires you the most and why?

Richard Feynman.

Have you heard him teach? The man has ways of explaining complicated concepts in words that pretty much anyone can understand. The more you get to know incidents from his life you realize that he had this unquenchable curiosity about things that kept him going – be it understanding the physics of extremely tiny particles or trying to make metal stick to plastic objects like radio knobs. He played bongo for fun, started drawing for the fun of it too, loved travelling and wanted to go to this place called Tannu Tuva simply because he thought a place with a capital named “Kyzyl” ought to be interesting. But amidst all of this, he found enough time to write letters. So many of them! If you read them, you’ll know that he cared. He wrote to confused students, to confused parents, to his former students, to authorities of institutions when he thought their affairs were not in order… and to his wife, two years after she had passed away.

I’ll quote from Robert Oppenheimer’s recommendation letter for Feynman to summarize what I mean,

He is by all odds the most brilliant young physicist here, and everyone knows this. He is a man of thoroughly engaging character and personality, extremely clear, extremely normal in all respects, and an excellent teacher with a warm feeling for physics in all its aspects.

What does your perfect weekend look like?

My perfect weekend starts with catching up on YouTube subscriptions and blogposts with coffee in bed, which is interrupted only by limiting capacity of my laptop battery, or by limiting capacity of us humans to exist without food. I accumulate posts that I’d like to read during the week and use pocket to save them for later. Let’s just say it takes a while before I get to doing anything else. Then I Skype home, talk to friends from back home, and prefer spending the rest of the day mostly by myself - being non-social and take some time to do things like reading fiction, going for a run, or finding interesting things to take photographs of. Sunday is mostly getting organized for the upcoming week and complaining about the weekend that seemed like it lasted for 48 minutes instead of 48 hours.

In reality, however, I wake up Saturday morning, start with YouTube videos ( Kurzgesagt | Veritasium | Speakeasynyc | MinutePhysics | mkbhd ) and blogposts ( Ed Yong | Tim Urban | Allie Brosh | PhD comics | xkcd ) with coffee in bed, and before I know it, it’s Monday morning!

What is your favorite book and why?

You’d really have to be more specific than that. I’ve liked different books at different times. Recently I read this short story about the secret that only the milkmen know (yes, the people who deliver milk to your house in the morning), and have been blown away by a couple of ideas and a bunch of lines in it. It is a 5-page story. Not a book. But I like it as much as I like The Emperor’s New Mind that made me change my interest from physics to neuroscience.

But if you were to ask me for a random book suggestion, without telling me what you like or dislike, I’d recommend - The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

It was inspired by The Jungle Book. You’d think that an idea of a baby being brought up by animals would be a difficult one to apply in a different setting. But wait till you read about Nobody, who’s brought up by ghosts. In a graveyard.

What is an important life lesson you have learned in the past?

If only men could truly know each other, they’d neither idolize, nor hate.

I heard this quote (Google now tells me that it’s by Elbert Hubbard) on a TV show towards the end, just before credits. I’ve gone back to this quote time and again – like when I had to face an interview and was nervous and scared of the people on the panel, or when I had to decide if I should sever ties with someone. The more you openly talk to people, the more you get to hear their insecurities, their doubts, their fears, their mistakes and their point of views, which are mostly similar to your own insecurities, and fear, and mistakes. I’d like to think that understanding this, and making a conscious effort to keep it in mind, has made me more empathetic and more willing to try new things without fearing failure.

What is the most important advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?

After a busy, unexpectedly difficult and seemingly never ending week, a bunch of Donders PhD’s meet at the Cultuur Café on campus. They wear civilized dress and walk past the usual unsuspecting crowd at the bar, across the tables, down the secret stairway, on to the sacred meeting area underneath the stage, which hides all this from the non-PhD folks. They gather there every week to make their sacrificial offering of their blood, cut from the left thumb, to prevent themselves from being sent to one of the nine circles of scientific hell. Don’t ask them to show you their left thumb unless you want to join them at the weekly ceremony.

Kidding.

[shakes head suggesting that he really isn’t]

I recommend going to the Friday Afternoon Drinks (more famously known as FAD) at the Cultuur Café. Chances are, you’ll find people who are facing similar problem to yours, or better yet, you’ll find someone who has a solution. You’ll either find answers, or moral support, or someone will join you and make fun of how ridiculous the whole situation is and you’ll feel better. More importantly you’ll become comfortable trying new things and making mistakes, which is imperative when developing new ideas.

Oh! You can also celebrate good things. But let’s be real.

Do you have any handy PhD project-related tips and tricks to share? We use an application called Slack at our lab for communication and for keeping track of projects. We discuss results, share links, quotes, comics that seem to represent the current state of the lab or how someone’s day was going. Basically, it’s a lab journal. This system is quite popular in the startup world, and was already in place at our lab when I joined. I think we underestimate the power of search function. No, really! I’ve gone back to this app to look-up how we came up with some idea, or what the reason was for certain method-related decisions and so much more. And almost always I vaguely remember something about the conversation and the search function has saved me a lot of scrolling time. It also allows me to procrastinate organizing my notes, for I can always use the search option. But that’s not the point.

Make regular, digital notes somewhere. It helps.

Tags: PhD, interview