Elvis Cela is currently a sixth year Ph.D. student in the Integrated Program in Neuroscience, at McGill University. He is training under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Jesper Sjöström; his doctoral project involves studying the optogenetic kindling of the cortex and its effects on local circuits.
Earlier this year, on March 27, Elvis published a first-author journal article in Scientific Reports, titled "An Optogenetic Kindling Model of Neocortical Epilepsy."
I invite you to read my interview with Elvis down below, where he explains why he moved from Toronto to pursue his graduate studies in IPN, explained what motivated him to pursue his work on seizures in rodents, the real-world objectives he aspires to achieve with his research, and the advice he wishes to relay to our prospective students.
Congratulations on having published a first-author article in the journal, Scientific Reports, last month! Your article demonstrates that performing repeated optogenetic stimulation in rodents would eventually induce seizures. In brief, describe your research and recent findings to our non-scientific audience.
[The team] and I developed a new method to study how seizures arise in the healthy brain. Using laser light guided through ultra-thin optic fibres in the brain of rodents, we “turned-on” light-sensitive proteins in selective brain cells and were able to eventually cause seizures through repeated laser stimulation. We were able to show that seizures can emerge gradually, in the absence of gross brain damage, solely by driving brain cell activity with light. Our approach allows for targeting different populations of brain cells in order to investigate their contributions to seizures, all the while minimizing damage to the brain.
What initially spurred your research question and hypothesis?
We wanted to examine the consequences of awry plasticity in the brain. Disorders such as epilepsy involving the disruption of excitatory-inhibitory function are excellent for this examination. We focused on generating seizures in initially healthy animals, and aimed to develop a model that would allow targeting genetically-defined neuronal populations for downstream analysis.
Almost every scientific research project has real-world implications. What large-scale objectives do you hope to achieve with your work?
Though our work was done in rodents, animal models allow for close examination of the first stages in the transition from a healthy to a diseased brain. We hope that our method will be used in parallel with existing models to better understand how early seizures arise in humans.
Evaluate the research that has been executed to date in the field of neurological research, specifically that of seizures and epilepsy. What questions remain unanswered?
One of the biggest questions that remains open is the delineation of the initial transition from a healthy to an epileptic brain during the first seizure. Recent studies have begun to answer this question, but there is still controversy regarding the initial findings due to disparate results.
Let us transition our conversation from your research career to your academic life. Why did you choose to move from Toronto to Montreal, such that you can pursue your graduate studies in IPN at McGill?
[I moved to Montreal] to experience a slightly different culture and environment. Furthermore, McGill has a great neuroscience department with many researchers to choose from.
What has your graduate experience been like thus far? Is there a professor and/or event that has markedly changed you as a student, a scientist, and as an individual?
I’m lucky to be surrounded by many great scientists and talented trainees at my workplace, which is the Centre for Neuroscience at the Montreal General Hospital. In addition, the neuroscience community at McGill is well-established and top-notch as evidenced by the large talent pool they attract, and the conferences and lectures are of high quality.
Balancing a Ph.D. degree and a doctoral research project must demand much of your time, energy and effort. Do you have specific hobbies or extracurricular activities that you resort to in order to decompress and relax?
Yes - I enjoy working out and training for powerlifting competitions. In addition, I do photography and take online courses in programming and math. I am also involved in the startup ecosystem in Montreal.
You first entered IPN as a M.Sc. student, from Toronto, in Fall 2011. Reflecting on the successes and setbacks you encountered over the past eight years, what advice would you relay to our incoming classes of new and upcoming researchers?
- Choose the right supervisor. This is critical to being on the same page in regards to publishing, working hours, lab culture, etc. I highly recommend reading an article titled "How to Pick a Graduate Advisor," written by Ben Barres.
- Ask previous trainees about lab life during the interview process. This allows you to get unfiltered feedback, and as everything with science, the larger the sample size, the better.
- Learn how to code.
- Don’t fall prey to sunk cost fallacies (i.e.: I have to continue because I have invested X time in something).
- Go to local and international conferences when you can. IPN has lots of travel awards to help with this. These events also help you identify your competition, which you should be aware of.
- Subscribe to the electronic table of contents of the few top journals in your field to keep abreast of the literature.
- Learn to beat your own drum when necessary and celebrate achievements.
- Learn how to say “no”. This applies to many things: extra experiments, helping out repeatedly, others who don’t respect time constraints etc.
- Make friends and colleagues so you have people to talk to. Very few people outside academia understand what getting a graduate degree entails.
- Organize events such as outings and trips for the lab to attend.
- Document your graduate life experiences through a journal and/or photos.
- Retain and grow your 'joie de vivre' and passion by pursuing meaningful hobbies.
- Sign up for experiences that require presenting in front of large audiences (i.e.: public speaking, standup comedy, playing music).
- If you’re interested in a non-academic career, start exploring possible career choices by attending non-academic career fairs and events.
Thank you, Elvis! Your points of guidance are quite unique and personalized, and hence, they will be greatly appreciated. Wishing you all the best in your future endeavours!
Interviewed by Dhabisha Kohilanathan; Published on April 16, 2019
Are you an IPN student and would like to share your recent accomplishment(s) in the field of academics and research? Please feel free to contact Dhabisha Kohilanathan at projects.ipn [at] mcgill.ca.