IPN Alumni Profile: Robin Sawaya

The two years during which I pursued my master’s degree at the Integrated Program in Neuroscience (IPN) were filled with new experiences.

In the summer of 2015, having just earned my undergraduate degree in neuroscience (with a minor in computer science), I joined Dr. Rolando Del Maestro’s team at the Neurosurgical Simulation Research and Training Centre. My project was to analyze the way neurosurgeons’ hand positions affect their performance during virtual reality brain tumor resections on the NeuroVR simulator. Using objective measures of surgical performance, we identified some of the technical skills necessary for residents to perform simulated surgeries safely and efficiently. We believe that trainees will eventually be asked to practice on simulators before going into the operating room, much like airplane pilots in the aviation industry.

Our location within the Montréal Neurological Institute (the Neuro), having access to residents and neurosurgeons as participants, is what made our work possible. I was told that when Dr. Penfield designed the Neuro, he had in mind to facilitate collaborations between researchers and clinicians, to accelerate discoveries which would ultimately benefit patients. I believe that his vision was a success, and extended beyond the Neuro: the IPN and its affiliated institutions harbor a vibrant community of neuroscientists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, and a multitude of healthcare professionals that work closely together. It is incredibly stimulating to pursue graduate studies surrounded by passionate individuals that conduct cutting-edge research in their field.

These passionate individuals are largely graduate students and members of the Graduate Student Association for Neuroscience (GSAN). During the final year of my master’s, I had the pleasure of holding the position of president and working with my peers and friends, to organize a wide variety of academic and social events. Our mission was to regularly bring us out of our labs, and to form a solid student community across all institutes. My fondest GSAN memories are the weekly French classes, in which my friend Kaija Sander and I taught the language to our international peers, often with music, movies, and sometimes even food to complement the lessons.

The greatest project I had the opportunity to be part of, however, was the NeuroSymposium. In fall 2015, I joined IPN friends Laura-Joy Boulos and Alexa Pichet Binette in the creation of a platform that would gather all graduate neuroscience students in the province for an inter-university symposium. Together with our colleagues from different institutions, we successfully organized the first two editions, and are currently working on a third one that will be taking place in June 2018. We are continually impressed and humbled by the enthusiasm that the NeuroSymposium has garnered within the provincial community of young neuroscientists. This annual event has quickly become an essential one to meet, discuss, exchange, and collaborate with our peers. It has been the highlight of the past two years, and there is a lot to look forward to as this project continues to grow.

The IPN was instrumental in my formation. As graduate students, we are increasingly required to understand and handle a wide variety of concepts. The result is a generation of resourceful, adaptable, and multi-talented researchers that will be able to creatively tackle the most complex challenges in our field. In September 2017, I began my medical studies at Western University. Although I have chosen to take a new path, temporarily away from the world of research, I am excited to hear about the new initiatives and projects that are sprouting within the McGill and Montréal neuroscience community. I hope to be part of it once again someday, as a clinician-researcher, and perhaps work with the next generation of neuroscientists.