Sebastien Helie, Ph.D.

10: Sebastien Hélie, Ph.D. – Award-Winning Associate Professor and Investigator Reveals his Academic Journey Coming to America

Dr. Sebastien Hélie is a French Canadian originally from Quebec. He grew up in a suburb of Montreal where he eventually received his Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Master of Science in Cognitive Psychology from the Universite de Montreal. During this time, he learned about computational psychology or mathematical psychology which sparked his interest to pursue this further. He found a professor at the Universite du Quebec A Montreal (UQAM) who was working in this field and explains this was the main reason for attending UQAM for his doctorate. After receiving his Ph.D. in Cognitive Computer Science, he continued his academic journey by moving to the United States where he moved from coast to coast before landing his perfect job at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

In this podcast interview, Dr. Hélie recounts his academic journey in more detail and explains how and why he attended different university programs. He explains how the academic system in Canada is different from the one in the US and offers advice to those interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology. Dr. Hélie is an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Psychological Sciences and the Dept. of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences. He is the Principal Investigator in the Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience and the Director of the Center for Research on Brain, Behavior, and NeuroRehabilitation (CEREBBRAL).

Dr. Hélie received the International Neural Network Society (INNS) Young Investigator Award and, more recently, the Trailblazer Award. He serves on the Leadership Team of the Purdue Institute for Integrative Neuroscience and explains his passion for his current and past research. He discusses how an fMRI and EEG are used in his lines of research and explains the origin of CERBBRAL.

Throughout the interview, Dr. Hélie provides impactful advice to both students and professors alike regarding the admission process, getting involved in research and labs, as well as research and grant writing. He fondly recalls his work with advisors and other professors throughout his career and shares some of the important things he has learned along the way.

Connect with Dr. Sebastien Hélie: Purdue Faculty Page
Connect with the Show: Facebook | LinkedIn | Twitter

Interests and Specializations

Dr. Hélie is interested in cognitive neuroscience, computational cognitive neuroscience, rule learning, skill acquisition, creative problem solving, decision-making and the evaluation process. Having received his Ph.D. in Cognitive Computer Science, he applies this training to his research and interests to better understand and measure cognitive learning concepts. Dr. Hélie admits that his favorite part of his job is mentoring his students as they keep him on his toes and continually challenge ideas discussed in the lab.


Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.), Psychology (2001); Universite de Montreal.
Master of Science (M.Sc.), Cognitive Psychology (2003); University de Montreal.
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Cognitive Computer Science (2007); Universite du Quebec A Montreal.

Other Sources and Links of Interest

Communicating Neurons Video – by Sebastien Hélie
Sebastien Hélie on Google Scholar

Podcast Transcription

00:00:10 BradleyWelcome to the Master’s in Psychology Podcast, where psychology students can learn from psychologists, educators, and practitioners to better understand what they do, how they got there, and hear the advice they have for those interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology. I’m your host Brad Schumacher and today we welcome Dr. Sebastian Hélie to the show. Dr. Hélie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences and the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at Purdue University. He received his doctoral degree in Cognitive Computer Science from the University of Quebec in Montreal. Dr. Hélie was awarded the 2019 Trailblazer Award and received the International Neural Network Society Young Investigator Award. Dr. Hélie is the Co-director of the Center for Research on Brain Behavior and Neurorehabilitation, otherwise known as CEREBBRAL, and he’s also the Principal Investigator for the Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience. Dr. Hélie, welcome to our podcast.
00:01:16 SebastienThank you for having me Brad. I’m excited to be here.
00:01:19 BradleyI’m excited to have you as well I, I looked at all of your history and your academic journey and all of your new research and I’m actually excited to start talking about that. But before we do, let us just kind of start off a little bit by asking you…tell us a little bit more about yourself for our listeners.
00:01:39 SebastienOK, so uhm, I’m French Canadian originally from the province of Quebec. I grew up in the suburb of Montreal and I actually spent most of my life up until my late 20s either in the suburb of Montreal or in Montreal where I moved when I was a student. I did all my studies in Montreal. I’m sure we’re going to get into details about that and after I obtained my Ph.D. uh, in 2006 I moved to the US, and I’ve lived in the US since then. I’ve lived in a few different places. I’ve been on the East Coast in the Albany area. I’ve been on the West Coast in Santa Barbara and now I’m in the Midwest in West Lafayette.
00:02:22 BradleyIt sounds like you’ve been all over the place, not only in the United States, but in, in Montreal as well. And then parts of Canada, and so we usually go chronologically in order. So, tell us a little bit more about your undergraduate experiences at the University of Montreal.
00:02:38 SebastienSo, I actually really liked my undergraduate studies at the University of Montreal. The education system in Quebec, the French one at least, is a little different than what people are used to in the US in that we actually graduate high school a year earlier than people in US but then we go to a thing called CEGEP for two years which where we do General College Courses, uhm, and that prepares us for university and then when you go to university, the bachelor’s degree is only three years. So, at the end of the day, it’s the same number of years, it’s just breaked out differently. But because the bachelor’s degree is only three years, it’s much more specialized so you don’t have many electives. You don’t have many of these other random courses that you might take as an undergrad in the US because you’ve done all of those in in CEGEP. So, it’s very concentrated in psychology and a lot of it, a lot of the students who enrolled in psychology in Montreal are interested in clinical psychology. A lot of them are hoping to eventually become therapists, so a lot of these courses are clinical psychology courses. Uhm, I’m no exception. I actually signed up thinking I was going to eventually be a therapist, but I quickly found out that I’m not very good at this. Like it’s not a good area for me and then I just randomly landed in a cognitive psychology lab as a research assistant and fell in love with the field and so and then worked in cognitive psychology labs for the rest of my undergraduate years.
00:04:18 BradleyWell, it sounds like you kind of found out, hey, I was interested in this and then no, that really isn’t for me, but you ended up in an area that was really exciting for you.
00:04:29 SebastienYes, I got lucky um, and um, and I’ll have to say I didn’t really even choose to be in a cognitive psychology lab. As an undergrad, I was working part time and, and so I had restrictions on, on the courses that I could take that fit my schedule and I really landed the cognitive psychology lab because that was the one course that fit my schedule. So, I guess there are happy accidents.
00:04:55 BradleyRight, right? Well, you’re not the first of my guests. Some of them talk about happenstance or it just happened to turn out that way. You, you mentioned that you could focus a little bit more on your undergraduate. You said psychology and then first you were interested in in becoming a, you know, going into the field and becoming a psychologist or practicing psychologist and then going into cognitive, how did you choose to attend the University of Montreal? I’m sure there are other universities out there that you could have attended. How did you choose Montreal?
00:05:30 SebastienSo, there is. It’s interesting. Yeah, so I actually didn’t consider that many different universities. Part of it is that, at that time, I spoke very little English, so I was restricting myself to French universities and there that already reduces your SAT to a much smaller number and University of Montreal. At that time, their psychology program had the better reputation among the other French universities, and it was convenient ’cause I didn’t really have to move so.
00:06:03 BradleyAnd then you actually stayed at the University of Montreal for your master’s degree, and maybe…was that out of convenience? Or it was just already there, you were set up, you felt comfortable? You could have gone someplace else. So why did you stay there?
00:06:15 SebastienSo, what happens is, uhm, like I mentioned in my earlier response, I spent a lot of time working in cognitive psychology labs while I was there, and I realized this was really what I liked and was my passion. And the last year that I was there, there’s a new faculty that was hired and that was doing cognitive psychology. His name was Dr. Denis Cousineau, and um, I’ve, I’ve started talking with him and I thought his research was really interesting and we were getting along well. I guess it’s, it kind of helps also, since it was, he was a new faculty, was just hired so he was on the younger side, so we were closer in age, so things just clicked, and I wanted to work with him and learn from him. So, I, I actually didn’t apply to any other university. I only applied to work with him.
00:07:06 BradleyAnd on the master’s, I, I know that you kind of told us, hey, the time, the length of time is similar to the United States for undergrad, for the master’s, is it similar to the United States or how is it similar or different in, in Canada for the master’s degree?
00:07:20 SebastienWell, a big difference is that typically in the US you would enroll into grad school like generally and then you would event…you would somewhere along the way get a master’s. But then you’re already in the Ph.D. Program. Whereas Quebec has that French system where you, you, you enroll in a master’s program, you get a master’s and then you enroll in a Ph.D. program and you get a Ph.D.. And it’s typically encouraged that you get your master’s and Ph.Ds.’ from different location. Because they see it is valuable, the fact that you can be successful in multiple location that you’re not just successful in one environment, then maybe the environment is what makes you successful. Uh, but as far as years, um, they would be essentially the same as in the US in the sense that your master’s is expected to take two years and your Ph.D. is expected to take three, whereas normally grad school is five years in the US. Um, I mean there’s, these are not strict, strict deadlines. I mean, many people take more than two years to do a master’s, uh, and more than three years to do a Ph.D. but normally it should be the same.
00:08:34 BradleyOK, well thank you for sharing that. I know that you mentioned that it was happenstance that you got into the cognitive psychology realm and then you liked one of your newer professors or one of the newer department members. What else was important to you when you were selecting a graduate psychology program?
00:08:55 SebastienUhm, well, I guess there’s well, the relationship with the mentor was something important. As I mentioned. The other thing is I had some, early on, I had some really strong ideas of what I was interested in working on and, and I wasn’t like there are a lot of students who applied to grad school who just want to say work in neuroscience. They want to work in kind of psychology, whereas I had like specific ideas is this is the research I want to do, and this is probably because I had been working in labs for two years. I had been reading articles and so I was able to pinpoint what I wanted to do. And it was very important for me to be able to do that research that I wanted to do, so I needed to have a supervisor that was flexible enough to actually like listen to what I’m interested in doing, and that was open to be convinced that this was something interesting.
00:09:44 BradleyWell, it’s interesting that you share that Dr. Hélie, because not a lot of people know exactly what kind of research they want to, you know, not only pursue but follow up on later on in their graduate careers as well. So, as you mentioned that it was because you did a lot of labs, that probably helped you define or further define the type of research. Any other advice that you might have for some students? I know it’s not a requirement. I went to grad school as well. They don’t ask you what kind of research do you want to do? But it’s a valid question, and if you already have an idea then you can better fit yourself with the appropriate resources and professors in that field. So, any, any other thoughts for our audience members on how to come up and develop and find out what kind of research you want to do earlier on rather than later on.
00:10:38 SebastienWell, I think you can look at the classes you take as an undergrad and see in these classes what are the topics that really resonate from you, for you and then try to find faculty that work on that topic. Uhm, I always advise, um, undergraduate student in my lab now that I’m on the other side of the fence and I’m a faculty who actually drafts grad students. It’s always a good idea to reach out to faculty before applying, not just applying blind. So, if you’re going to say, be applying to Purdue University, then I think it’s a good idea to have reached out to a few faculty ahead of time that actually have research interests that match yours. I understand that not everyone is lucky enough to already have met these people, um, but you can find faculty that do work that look interesting. One thing, idea convenient, oftentimes the students are, are kind of shy to contact faculty out of the blue, but usually I say just read one of their papers and then email them a question about one of the paper or something. That’s a good way to get in touch, because at the graduate level, admissions is much more subjective than at the undergraduate level, and faculty have a lot to say in who gets in and who doesn’t. Whereas for the undergrads I mean, we don’t see them. There’s too many undergrads. But, for example, people who apply in programs where on faculty actually get to see these applications, and oftentimes a faculty will pay more attention to your application if, if he remembers your name from having interacted with you to emails. And then can push for that application if the application is good. I mean obviously you’re not going to get in just by being a nice person if you don’t have the, if you don’t have the skills and their grades and everything, but you know, taking for granted that everyone who applies is smart, name recognition can actually help you a lot.
00:12:33 BradleyYeah, that’s great advice. It’s, it’s a nice reminder to don’t be afraid to reach out. I know a lot of people might be intimidated by reaching out to this professor, especially a professor who is doing your line of research and you want to work with, it might be a little intimidating, but great advice. You have any, some, some fond experiences or memories you want to share with the audience while you were attending University of Montreal?
00:13:01 SebastienWell, I would say what I liked the most really was the kind of the, the, the lab environment, the research environment, which was very, very open and that everyone that we were three labs that were sharing the same physical space and so the grad students from these three labs were always together. We’d have lunch together like every day. Every Friday at towards the afternoon we all stopped working and we’ll go have a beer somewhere. And uhm, so these relationship were, were some of my best memory and they led to this thing there you had this community where everyone knew roughly what kind of research others were doing and you’d share opinion and the faculty were also kind of part of this and that they, they have lunch with us and, and so it wasn’t like there are, there are a lot of labs and programs I’ve seen where the grad students are more seen as a worker, where the, the faculty just gives them a project and then you supposed to work on that project. Again, I thought it was great at University of Montreal that we would if the faculty we were working with they would actually ask us our opinion and they would take that into consideration when designing the research. And to me that was great and that’s, that kind of goes back to this reaching out to the faculty part in that oftentimes students think that they’re applying to a program, but really you’re applying to be mentored by someone for five years, and the relationship you’re going to have with that person is really important, because five years can be very long if you don’t get along well with the person you choose, and it’s not necessarily that the person is a bad person, or it’s sometimes personality click, or they don’t click. And, uh, I think that’s much more important than the, um, than the um university when you end, end up getting your degree. Also, if your plan is to go into academia, there’s this idea of academic lineage where people are going to see you more as such and such grad, former grad student not so much as someone who has a degree from that university. And so that’s really important. So, you’re really applying to work with someone, not with a program.
00:15:13 BradleyThat’s good advice, I, I never really thought about it that way, although I did know when I was going through Graduate School that I did select people that had the same interests as me and the same line of research, but they happen to be well-known in their fields, so it’s also nice to ah I…What are your thoughts? I’m just brainstorming out loud with you…What are the downsides or upsides of picking somebody who is very well-known, and you’re not really interested in that research? To me, my gut reaction Dr. Hélie, is don’t do that because it’s going to come out, they’re going to realize that you’re not really that interested in that line of research, and it might not be to your benefit or their benefit if you if you went down that road, any other thoughts on that?
00:16:00 SebastienWell, I generally agree with your feeling that it’s, it’s not a good idea. Uhm, another reason I would add is that oftentimes the bigger names that people that are the most well-known in the field tend to have bigger labs. And that means you’re going to get less attention. And there tends to be because, you know, we all have just so many hours that we can work with. So, if you’re the lab you go in, there’s say 20 grad students then, the, the, the, the, the PI of that lab is going to be maybe able to pay attention to four grad students. So, you better be in the top four ’cause otherwise you’re just going to be lying somewhere in a in an office, and you’re not going to get all that kind of attention. Now, I guess for some people that work. So again, it comes back to the, the individual differences, so some people need a lot of supervision. Some people like to be left alone. So, it depends on what you’re going for. So I would say that, that’s one reason why you wouldn’t want to do that, and then a reason also to maybe pick someone who might not be as famous and might be younger is if you can identify the next superstar is that you know the work you do in the lab when you’re a grad student, it’s give and take and that the, the, the PI in your lab actually spends time supervising you and teaching you things how to do research and all that. But that person also benefits from your work and that is productivity coming out of the lab. And then someone who is younger and has a smaller lab that is much more invested in your success because their own success depends on your success. Whereas if you go with someone who’s already world famous and he was going to retire in two years, it doesn’t really matter if you do well.
00:17:43 BradleyRight? No, that’s, that’s actually the reality. I, I agree with you. Now you, you did actually change from the University of Montreal to the University of Quebec for your Ph.D.. So how did you decide on going to am I, am I going to say this correctly? UQAM – “You Cam” UQAM…is that right?
00:18:08 SebastienSo that that’s actually pretty interesting. So, one of the things that I’ve learned while I was doing my master’s is there’s this completely new, well, not new, but it was new to me when I was a grad student. There’s this field that is, was within cognitive psychology, but it’s also a separate field that’s called computational psychology or mathematical psychology and Dr. Cousineau actually did that, and it’s essentially, it’s a fairly rare field in psychology, but it’s this idea of building computational models that implement cognitive theory. So, you know, in in psychology if you’re thinking about let’s say you’re trying to figure out how people make decisions or how people memorize new material. So, most of the theories are conceptual and verbal descriptions, so they would explain how things happen. But in most natural sciences, let’s say take physics, that’s just the first step in theory development. After that, you’re going to sit down and write down mathematical equation that describes this phenomenon, and then you can essentially code that on a computer and run simulation and make predictions. Like if you’re thinking about relativity for example, or, or, let’s say uhm to go with something simpler, let’s go with gravity. So, saying that things fall because they’re attracted by a, by bigger object, that’s one step, but then you can write down an equation that essentially will show how quickly things fall or, and that’s always a next step in sciences like physics, and in many other natural sciences. But it’s not in psychology.

Mathematical psychology actually tries to do that, and Dr. Cousineau does that. I didn’t know this existed, but I found that fascinating. But I realized that I didn’t have the math background to do this, so there was a lot of skills I needed to learn in order to be able to do that research. And from the way things are organized at the University of Montreal, it’s actually pretty hard to take classes outside your department unless there are pre-existing relationships between your department and the other department, so it would have been essentially impossible for me to go out and take math and stats classes outside of my department, like directly in the math department or stat department. Uhm, I knew I was talented in these areas ’cause I always, it’s always been easy for me. I just wasn’t doing any of it and, and then I found that cognitive science program at the University of Quebec and Montreal was completely new, and it was held in a computer science department. So, they have the same kind of restriction but now I find it a computer science department then math is right next door and stats is right down the hall, and so I knew that if I could get into that program that I’d be able to take these classes and be able to learn to become a good computational modeler. Uhm, so, so that’s what I did. So, I have a Ph.D. in computer science, but I really never considered doing computer science. To me, it was clear the whole time that I was going there to get tools and then I was going to come back in psychology and apply these tools.
00:21:14 BradleyWell, it’s interesting that you mentioned that because when I looked at your background, it appears to me, correct me if I’m wrong, but your primary I, I believe your primary appointment at Purdue University was actually in mathematical and computational cognitive science. Is that correct?
00:21:33 SebastienYes, so Purdue actually is one of the very few universities in the US and in North America that has, within the psychology department, has an area of computational or mathematical psychology. So, here’s students like me who showed up in a psychology department and just learned that this thing exists. They actually can take these courses and become computational psychologists.
00:21:58 BradleyI’m going to go ahead and share my screen for a second for the audience, let me make sure I share the correct one here and I believe that’s the right one. And actually, on your bio page at Purdue University, it does show associate professor and then mathematical computer, computational, cognitive science and cognitive psychology in neuroscience and when I look at these later on, it actually does show each of the different, different departments as well but that was your primary, I believe it was, as I said, and so you, you…
00:22:33 SebastienYeah, yeah, so this is where I was hired, so they’re, they’re all just, just to clarify, they’re, they’re all the same departments, so they’re all in psychology. These are graduate training programs, so these are different options when a, when a grad student apply to grad school at Purdue University in the psych department they don’t just apply in psychology, they apply either in the mathematical and computational cognitive science area, or in the cognitive psychology area, or in the neuroscience area. And it’s just that each faculty typically is assigned to one of these areas where it is recognized that they can train students in that area to get Ph.D..
00:23:10 BradleyOK, well thank you. That makes a little bit more sense now that you discuss that a little bit further. I know that you mentioned some of the differences between Canada and US schools. Any other differences that come to mind now that you think about it in hindsight?
00:23:27 SebastienUhm, well one big one. Uhm, is that. Well. First of all, there, there’s a distinction between the English Canadian school system and the French-Canadian school system, so the English Canadian is closer to the American system. The French is really different, and I’d say one of the big difference is that. Uh, we in the US you normally in most bigger school you then you usually have a stipend. Uhm, while you’re in grad school, uhm, and, and that means that I, I guess it it’s good and it’s bad. On the one hand, it means that you’re um, it means that you can focus full time on your research and on your classes. But then on the other hand, that means that you’re also you’re also an employee, so there are kind of work expectation from you, and oftentimes that means you have less control of what kind of research. You do because the, the major professor who accepts you in their lab as a grad student, then they’re paying you, and that means they receive a grant to do research on Project X, and so that means you’re in my lab, but you gotta work on this, whereas in the French-Canadian system you don’t get a stipend. So that means most students have to work part time to support themselves. But then nobody’s paying you, so you’re volunteering in labs. So that means you have a lot more leeway to do whatever you want because you’re not taking any, anything away from the, from the faculty, so I guess there’s both good and bad, but the I’d say this is probably the major difference. Also, I’d say in Quebec the professor student relationship that’s to be much more informal. We never use the title “Dr.” in, in French university it would be Mr. or Miss so and so and then the student would also be called Mr. or Miss so and so. So, it kind of puts everyone on the same footing. So that’s another difference.
00:25:32 BradleyYou know one question that came to mind when you were describing all that is, if I was a prospective student, how would I know which school is following either the English or the French way of, you know, learning and/or organizational setup. So how would I know?
00:25:49 SebastienUh, well, I mean, whether it’s a, it’s an English or a French university that should be fairly easy to find out just by looking at their website. The language of instruction should be easy to find out. Uhm, there are a few universities that are bilingual. For example, University of Ottawa, where every course is taught both in French and in English, and these rare cases as far as I know, they would follow the American system. So, I’d say that’s how you would, you would find that out. It would be based just looking on the website. Usually if the university is French, it will typically be in Quebec, so that’s already a big thing. And then it would also mean that that it follows the, the French system. I guess another difference that I didn’t mention is that it’s way way cheaper, so there’s no stipend, but it’s because the, the tuitions are, are really small compared to, I’d say, English Canadian school tend to be somewhere in the middle, and then American school are more expensive.
00:26:53 BradleyOK, well it kind of puts it into perspective for us. American is, out of the three, the highest and then English Canadian is in the middle and then French-Canadian is a little lower because you’re not having to come up with the stipend for, for all of the students. And of course, after you talked about it, it, it makes sense. Just look at the website and if it’s in French then it’s going to follow that as well, but you said that some of them are bilingual as well, so it’s interesting. I had never really thought about it that way in terms of which one you’d rather do. I don’t speak any French, so I would probably have a difficult time applying to a French-Canadian Graduate School because they’re not going to change their, everything is not going to be revolved around me. Brad doesn’t speak French, so I’m going to have to make sure that I, I do that, but I I’m sure that happens, right?
00:27:44 SebastienYeah, yeah. Well so the in Canada, both French and English are official languages, so you can go to a French university and turn in your work in English. You’re not going to get to take classes in English, so you’ll have to figure out sitting in classes and hearing someone teach in French. But if you have, say, a written essay to turn in, you can turn in an essay in English.
00:28:07 BradleyOK, well that’s interesting.
00:28:08 SebastienI mean I. I, I think it’s very unusual. I don’t think it happens much, but then I’ve never been a faculty there. So maybe it happens, and I just don’t know about it. And same thing with the English universities in, in Montreal. Like if you’re thinking, say, McGill would be the most famous. Well, it’s an English university, so all the courses are going to be in English, but in theory you can turn in any work in French, and it has to be considered the same.
00:28:33 BradleyOK, well that’s good to know. And then you kind of gave us a good summary of your graduate work in your in your career. What were the most important factors for you when you were selecting each of those schools? I know you mentioned that it was happenstance, and you had a young professor, but what other important factors did you consider when you were looking at your Graduate Schools?
00:28:58 SebastienWell, uhm. I think. Honestly, I know this is a boring answer, but it’s mostly happenstance and that I guess for, for the master’s it was, it’s this professor that I met. And then for the Ph.D., um, this was actually at the time this was the only cognitive science program in French in all of North America, so there really was no other choice and uhm, I mean I, I knew at that time that at some point since my goal now was clear at this point that I wanted to be an academic, I knew I was going to have to learn English at some point. But I felt that getting a Ph.D. and learning English at the same time was a bit much, so I didn’t even consider applying to English school.
00:29:40 BradleyOK.
00:29:42 SebastienI did that.
00:29:45 BradleyAnd what did you do after you received your doctorate? Because when I looked at your Vita and everything, I couldn’t determine what you did immediately after receiving your doctorate.
00:29:53 SebastienWell, so this is where I figured I’d have to learn English now, so I was I was lucky enough that I, I won a postdoctoral fellowship from the Government of Quebec, and I obtained a postdoctoral position at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. So, this is in Troy, NY. It’s a small private engineering school. And they actually don’t have a psychology department there, but they have a cognitive science program. The Cognitive Science department that has a psychology program. It’s pretty, it’s a pretty good school and uhm, I found there was a faculty there that was Dr. Ron Sun who was working on, uh, very similar topic to what I did during my Ph.D. thesis. And so, I reached out to him to see if he’d be willing to take me in this lab if I would get that fellowship, and he accepted so that at that time I moved to US and, and was also good in that, so for those of, for those who are not familiar with the Northeast region, the Albany area is literally just a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Montreal, so it wasn’t that far from home, so that was good as well ’cause it was my first time moving away from home. And so, I moved to the US, I’ve did research there, uh, my research there completely changed. That was actually an interesting thing, in that I chose this faculty based on the fact that he was working on, he had published a really good article on a similar topic to my Ph.D. project and not many people worked on that topic at that time. But then when I arrived there it was, he told me well, now this is published, so we’re done, we’re working on something else. But we just start working on creativity and creative problem solving, which was really interesting.

So, I worked with him there for two years and after that I was, he offered me to stay in the lab when my fellowship expired. He offered me a postdoc job there, but I wasn’t a big fan of the area. I liked the university in the lab I worked in, but I didn’t really care for the Albany area. And I found a postdoc position at University of California, Santa Barbara. So, I moved to the beach. And this is actually where I became interested in neuroscience. So up to that point I was doing straight cognitive psychology and computational modeling. Uhm, and actually while I was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I realized that I didn’t really want to be in a cognitive science department. I wanted to be in a psychology department because they have better infrastructure for running human participants, so. For everyone who’s in the psychology department, we know that our subject pool is specially the students in psychology, and so we need big psychology department to run their experiments. So, I want to move back to psychology proper and UC Santa Barbara had just bought a new MRI scanner. And there was a faculty there, Dr. Gregory Ashby, who was looking to use the MRI scanner. But this lab at that time didn’t have expertise in fMRI and so he was looking for a post doc who could essentially teach his lab how to use the MRI scanner. So, at that time I actually didn’t know how to use an MRI scanner, and I told him that, but he asked me if I was willing to learn it and teach his lab. So, I feel I can do that.
00:33:34 BradleyRight, right? Well, that explains the connection here. If you can see my screen for those of you on just listening in, I’m sharing the Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience at UC Santa Barbara, and that’s where Dr. Ashby is the principal investigator, and then that’s your relationship there. So, I found that you were one of the postdoctoral researchers there and then, what’s also fun, Dr. Hélie, is that I found the video that you produced while you were there. I think it was this one “Communicating Neurons” created by Sebastian Hélie. And so, tell us a little bit about this and how you came up with, coming up with this video.
00:34:17 SebastienUh, actually I created that video when I moved to Purdue. Uh, well, after I had left UC Santa Barbara. They just stole it from me. Well, they didn’t steal. They asked me if they could see if they could use it. I actually created that, um, when I was creating a website for my own lab and I was trying to find something attractive and I was teaching, I was teaching a computational cognitive neuroscience class where we modeled circuits of spiking neurons and I always had a hard time explaining to students how the neurons, how the information propagates from one neuron to the next. And so, I figured that creating this a small animation would actually be helpful. So, I created that and then I ended up putting it on my website and then Dr. Ashby who’s a good friend, asked me if he, if I mind if he actually put that on his on his website as well and I, I said sure you can use it.
00:35:14 BradleyWell, good, good. It’s actually pretty interesting. I didn’t know, I didn’t really, the way that you described it was actually pretty straightforward and it made sense to me. Versus if you’re, if you’re reading it, you’re going well, what’s, what does that mean? So, I actually liked the video, so it was interesting that you, there was that connection there for UC Santa Barbara. And, and now you’re well, let me make sure I don’t skip anything, so we went to New York after your doctoral degree. Then UC Santa Barbara. And then, where did you go after that?
00:35:43 SebastienWell, so then I actually stayed a while at UC Santa Barbara, so I was a postdoc for 2 1/2 year and then I became an independent researcher there. Uhm, so not quite faculty because it’s not tenure track. Uh, but uhm, I was scientifically independent and I was able to secure my own funding and do my own things. But then these research positions are what we call soft money position, where you essentially have the job as long as you have grants. But if at some point you don’t have grants, there’s a gap in your funding, then you would lose job and since, since I was not an American, visas became an issue at some point because you can only get temporary visas for so long and then at some point if you want to officially immigrate to US You need to have a stable job and be sponsored by an employer and so I needed to find something that was more permanent and that’s when I, I started looking for regular faculty position elsewhere and I ended up getting a position at Purdue University as regular faculty.
00:36:48 BradleyNow I’m going to go back to the topic that you, you talked about grants and proposals. A lot of people may despise doing that. A lot of people love it. And where are you on that continuum first of all?
00:37:04 SebastienWell, I mean I, I love getting the grant. I don’t like applying to it.
00:37:09 BradleyOf course, give me the money. I love receiving the money, but having to go through all those hoops and, and, and don’t get me wrong, I know that each grant has specific instructions and requirements that you have to follow and if you don’t have a check mark in each of those, then you’re going to be put on the bottom of the list or it’s going to be rejected so I’ve talked to other guests on the show who, who do talk about that and my mom actually was involved in a lot of grant writing as well. So, I, I know how difficult it can be. I know that this weekend you’re attending the NSF, I, I forget where it’s at, remind me where your National Science Foundation, for those who are listening, you’re attending that. So, which one is that regarding?
00:37:53 SebastienUh, so that’s a. That’s a workshop and it’s, uh, it’s virtual. This one. It’s part one of a two-part series, and it’s essentially, NSF does these workshops when they’re, they’re thinking about opening a line of funding for some specific topic that they care about. And, so, what they want to do is essentially organize a workshop that is by invitation only, where such like people who work on this topic, they can just get together and start talking about what are the critical questions in that area and what, what should be prioritized and what should we do. And so, I’m gonna, I’m attending that for the next two days and then I’ll see if it’s interesting or not. And then if it’s interesting, Part 2 is going to be sometimes in the fall, in Puerto Rico, so haven’t traveled in a long time. So, in Puerto Rico might be a nice place to go.
00:38:45 BradleyAnd when did they give a timeline on Part 2?
00:38:48 SebastienThey have not.
00:38:50 BradleyOK, all right well? Well, hopefully you’ll be able to travel and, and do a little bit more of that. The other thing that I wanted to mention getting back to the, the funding a lot of even professors nowadays have it, have a difficult time doing that. Do you have any advice for any students and/or professors out there that are doing some grant writing or, or proposals? For the very first time, any advice regarding that?
00:39:19 SebastienWell, it’s very difficult, and I’d say the, the, the best advice I could say is just to be persistent and not take rejection as being a reflection of the quality of your work. Uhm, so haven’t done this for a while now and also haven’t been on grant panel, so having evaluated grants and I can say that it’s the, the grant evaluation process is very subjective, and that the same application can be read by two different people who will end up thinking that it is an awesome project, or that it’s not that interesting uhm. And so, there’s a lot of luck involved, and some of it is a numbers game, so that you should expect to be rejected most of the time, and you should just send a lot and just hope for to get a winning lottery ticket. That doesn’t mean that you have no control and that you should just randomly send rent application. You should work hard and produce the best one you can. But, um, I would say one thing you that can sometimes be difficult for people who are beginning is that there’s a lot of things, so you have your nose in your research, right? You every day you come to the lab, you work on this topic and now you’re writing a grant application to keep working on this. And there are a lot of things when you’re that close to the research that seems like they go without saying, that seem obvious. And so, you don’t put that in your grant application, but it’s not obvious to anyone but you. And so, you have to learn to really unpack things and be explicit about things, realizing that the, the person who’s reading your grant. Well, first of all, hasn’t been working in your lab every day for the past year. Even if they’re an expert on the topic, might not be obvious to them, and they might not even agree with this ’cause there’s not much that we know with high certainty. Uhm, so you need to be very explicit about things and unwrap things and oftentimes that, also that means having less material in the ground so it’s better to have fewer ideas but actually explain them appropriately than to try to put as many things as you can in there, but then nothing’s clear, and that’s, that’s the, the, the usual rookie mistake is to push too much too much thing. In a grant application, and then the reader reads this, and they don’t understand. And when people like to feel smart and when they read something, and they understand that they feel smart and then they like the grants. If they read this and they have no clue what you’re doing, then they don’t, they’re not going to like it.
00:41:57 BradleyThat’s very good advice. I like how you, uh, summarized at the end there. Less is more and, and more actually is, is more confusing to some of the people. So, and getting back to you, you ended up at Purdue. Did you apply to other universities and tell us a little bit about that process and how you selected Purdue and why you selected Purdue and other universities as well?
00:42:23 SebastienYeah, so I applied to multiple universities. We all do I. I actually relatively applied to a smaller number of universities than most people. Part of it is that I was in a good situation where I was in Santa Barbara and I didn’t mind staying there a couple more years so I, I was being very selective in to where I was applying but I still applied to a number of university and had a number of interviews and one of the reason why I picked Purdue was actually that this computational mathematical psychology program, so there’s really not many universities that have those, and that really fit well with what I was doing. And Purdue has a great reputation with that program. It’s historically important in mathematical psychology. I think part of this is that when people think Purdue, they think engineering Purdue is that’s the big dog on campus. Purdue is known for its engineering, and so it’s known for its computational and its mathematical thing, and so that that overflows on the other departments, and so you tend to have more computer science type people. Also, Purdue actually has the oldest computer science program in the country. They were the first one to have a computer science program. And so, it it’s a good place for um, for computational work. And I came here, I interviewed, and I actually really liked the people that I met during my interview. I had never been to the Midwest, actually was a little reluctant about applying because like everyone you know, everyone has never been to the Midwest, they only hear bad things about the Midwest and then everyone who’s lived there they love it. But people who’ve never been there, they, they all, they all like to say how it’s not a nice place. It’s fly over country. But interestingly, coincidentally so Dr. Ashby who I was working with in Santa Barbara, he actually got his Ph.D. in the computational program at Purdue.
00:44:20 BradleyOh wow, OK.
00:44:21 SebastienIt’s telling me the great things about Purdue, and he was saying that you know he was saying, well, it’s not as nice as Santa Barbara, but as in terms of labs and university, and it’s actually a great place to be. And so, I, I applied and ended up getting interviewed and I liked it.
00:44:40 BradleyHow long have you been at Purdue now?
00:44:42 SebastienSince 2012, I guess nine years.
00:44:44 BradleyOK, all right. And while you were there, I mentioned in my intro you were awarded the 2019 Trailblazer Award. Tell us a little bit more about that.
00:44:56 SebastienSo, the Trailblazer Award is a newer award given by the College of the Health and Human Science College which is the college that’s psychological sciences in at Purdue, where they’re essentially giving awards to mid, mid-career level scientists who are having an impact and are doing new things in terms of research. It’s a research award for Purdue faculty that are within the College of Health and Human Science that are doing groundbreaking work.
00:45:35 BradleyWell, it, it looks like you received a plaque, and you received a $2000 at the end of the year at the faculty awards. So, congratulations, I, I like the picture here. You’re doing some research on I think that the other person who received is that Cheryl Cookie and sitting down there then too?
00:45:53 SebastienNo, so this was a picture. This was actually a. This is not a real research today it was actually a photo shoot.
00:46:02 BradleyOK.
00:46:03 SebastienThat’s an actress. Actually, don’t know her, but it was a photo shoot for the CEREBBRAL, the Center for Research on Brain, Behavior and Neurorehabilitation. And so, we were essentially simulating an experiment where I would be studying while she’s doing multitasking. As you can see, she’s taking notes and talking on the phone at the same time, and older adults actually have a harder time doing multiple things simultaneously, so that’s one of the areas of research in CEREBBRAL.
00:46:35 BradleyAlright, well that that makes a little bit more sense to me. I was assuming that they were showing two of the recipients and so you were, you were with, there with an actress and, and good transition to CEREBBRAL and I know that you’re a co-director of CEREBBRAL and you can read here, you know, what your goals are but tell me how you got involved and how this was set up and what you guys are working on now.
00:47:01 SebastienOK, so CEREBBRAL actually is a, is a center that’s interested in improving the quality of life of older adults and people with neuro, with neurodegenerative disease, so it’s a fairly unique center in that it’s not so much focused on trying to cure things, but it’s trying to figure out how can we improve people’s life right now, while other people are finding cures for disease. Uhm, I actually co-founded that center, so it didn’t exist. It was founded in two, in 2016 by myself and Dr. Jessica Huber, who you see that’s the, the woman on the picture that you’re showing. So, we started collaborating shortly after I moved to Purdue, she’s in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences and she works on, she has applied research on speech deficits in Parkinson’s disease, and I had done some computational work earlier when I was in Santa Barbara on cognitive deficits in Parkinson’s disease. And we were interested to see if these things were related. I’m a basic scientist, so I do mostly useless research, whereas she’s an applied scientist, which actually works with people who have Parkinson’s disease, and we figured that that would be that we would make a good team trying to tackle this problem and learn more about it and then realized that there was a need and I generally speaking, uhm. Basic scientists and applied scientists don’t tend to interact much with each other, and they don’t tend to collaborate more much with each other, so we figured that we could potentially found a, found a center to essentially create these collaboration where we would invite to join a number of applied and a number of basic scientists who are interested in improving quality of life and then just get them to file to, to create interdisciplinary type teams and work together. So, Dr. Huber and I, we essentially applied to get seed funding to start the center in what the, the college had what they called the area of excellence competition where they would essentially invest money in something that was a strength in the college. And we actually won that competition and we’re able to, to um found the, the, the um center and then we, we were both co-directing that center when we created it since last year, I actually became the Director of the center, Dr Uber is still involved, but she has other, other administrative duties in the college that means that she couldn’t be involved as much. So, she’s now associate director of the center while I’m director of it. So, I guess how I got involved into it is we created it.
00:49:58 BradleyNo, that’s nice. I, I wasn’t sure how it came about. I, I didn’t, I saw the about and, and some of the history, but it’s interesting hearing a little bit more about how it was created and I, I brought up your Google Scholar page because I, I really find it interesting. Some of your recent work from 21, 20, and then going back to 19 included fMRI. Some creativity studies that you had mentioned earlier. And then going into neurocomputational theory and your most recent works are, are dealing with both of those right here. So, tell me a little bit more about how you have evolved in your lines of research and what are you interested in now and in the future, what are you working on?
00:50:41 SebastienUh, so I guess a lot of my work my, the, the bread-and-butter work in my lab is to essentially build computational models of brain circuits that can support cognitive activity. And I’m interested in applying this methodology to all kinds of different cognitive activities. So be it, category learning, working memory. Uh, memory in general. All kinds of different function and a lot of my previous work has been done in in in the area of trial-and-error learning. So simple sensory motor learning where say you show abstracts, visual stimulate the participant and then they need learn to associate them with button presses, or key, or some kind of motor response. And then the, the, the fun thing of using the kind of computational models that I use that model actual brain circuit is that you can account both for the behavioral data, but also for all kinds of brain data. And some of them we collect using fMRI which now Purdue has at the Purdue. Purdue now has three different MRI scanners on campus that we can use, so we do a lot of that. So, so lot, so that’s a lot of my past work.

My current work actually is moving a little bit away from that, and I’m now mostly interested in decision making and the evaluation process, which is actually very similar to category learning or the sensory motor learning that I described, except that now I’m interested in after you’ve learned. So how do you actually make a decision into which option you prefer? And then we can go into more real-life type of example where, how? How do you choose between say a chocolate bar and an apple when you’re hungry? Uhm, you know they. Your brain has to somehow assign value to these two things and then indeed the thought is that you would pick whichever one is more valuable to you. So, what I’m interested in is how do you actually estimate that value? And these two example actually a simple case because there are two foods. But you could say for example wonder, OK, so now I need to choose am I going to study one more hour for my final or am I going to take a nap? So, these two things are valuable. They’re valuable differently, and also, they’re not, they’re not on the same kind of measurement, right? The, the gain from studying is not the same as the gain from sleeping, but somehow your brain needs to create a common currency that allows for that comparison. And then you make a choice. So, I’m interested in how do we do that? So how do we actually create values and create a common currency?
00:53:32 BradleyAnd I should point out for our listeners that CEREBBRAL is a center and what you’ve been talking about in your lab, I’ll go ahead and share my screen. The lab is actually what I mentioned in the intro the, the Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience is different from the Center for CEREBBRAL, so I did see this main page and it, it gives a little background and then of course it talks about the faculty and the graduate students involved. For our students on, listening to the podcast, I see that you’re always accepting, or at least on the website it showed that you would click here for a list of current openings. Any advice to students or prospective graduate students that want to get involved in any sort of lab? Whether it’s at your university or at other universities?
00:54:21 SebastienWell, uhm. So, if you’re interested in applying for grad school to work in a lab, I would say that you should. If it’s a lab that’s within your the university that you’re currently getting your undergraduate degree from, then I would suggest going out and meeting the faculty and possibly applying to work in their lab. As an undergrad, as you can see, we have a couple undergrads. We always have two undergrads in this lab, some, some labs have essentially armies of undergrads. I like to keep things small, kind of consistent with what I was saying earlier in that I, I want to have time to spend with everyone that’s in my lab, so that’s why I usually have two, three grad students, two undergrads in my lab. I mean, it varies a little bit. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. Uhm, but I’d say meet, meet with the, the faculty advisor and show interest. You know when I was saying earlier like read one of the paper, ask, ask the question that was actually set you apart because a lot of a lot of undergrads contact us, um, all the time. But not most of them have never read one of our paper. Well, if you can show that you’re actually read a paper, and that that actually will show motivation, and if you manage to come up with a question that that somehow makes sense, that will show understanding. I, I mean, we have, we have different expectation like no, nobody is expecting that an undergrad reading your paper is going to completely get it. And like asked you the most, the most insightful question you’ve never heard that will essentially dictate your next 20 years of research, so it doesn’t have to be like that, but just. You know, just show that you understand what’s going on. You understand what it takes to do that research and I would say, if possible, if you have the opportunity, try to do this early. I’ve worked in a lab for two years when I was an undergrad and I would say that there are many almost every students that apply for grad school has spend at least one semester in the lab, but if you have multiple it’s more impressive. It looks good and also you know if you. If you do good work in the lab. Uhm, you get the opportunity of having your names on either some conference presentations or what would be more rare would be an actual journal article, but even, even a conference presentation that actually is something that most applicants don’t have. And I’m not talking like presenting a poster in your university. That’s very common, but if you can have it at an actual scientific conference and you know it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be the one going there and presenting it. But if you were one of the authors, that means you contributed substantially to the work. Uhm, that looks good on your Vita and it’s going to help you getting to grad school later.
00:57:22 BradleyVery good advice. Uhm, I have a, a question for you. I know you did a very good job summarizing what is communicating neurons. Can you take a same approach and kind of describe what is fMRI and typically when is it used? You alluded to some of the applications before but dumb it down for all of us. What is an fMRI and how do you basically use it?
00:57:46 SebastienSo, fMRI, just to unpack it stands for functional MRI. Um, MRI is Magnetic Resonance Imaging and it’s essentially an imaging technique that is not invasive. It’s essentially a big. It’s a giant magnet. Typically, about 2-3 tests usually three tests nowadays and it’s a big cylinder and they you essentially put people in there and if you put in the cylinder, whichever part of the body you want to image so you. MRI are not uncommon in hospital. It’s used a lot for structural scanning. If you need to see if your if your knee is broken for example, or if you have a broken hand or something like that. But this is all static. This is independent of what you’re doing, so you can do an MRI of your brain, for example, but that will just show. Essentially, the structure of your brain will be a static image. fMRI is a newer method. It uses the same machine. But it’s a different application of it where you’re actually looking at blood flow in your brain, and this will actually change as a function of whatever you doing. So, the idea here is that whichever part of your brain are working harder at a given time when you’re doing something requires more nutrient. You need to feed these neurons that they take a lot of energy, and so there’s going to be more blood in that part of the brain. So typically, you would essentially have participants do psychology experiments while in the MRI scanner and then you measure this blood flow. And that essentially gives you an idea of what part of the brains are working while they’re doing the task, and it allows for trying to better identify whether the brain circuits that are responsible for specific cognitive activity for what you’re doing, how your brain is solving some experiment. But the big advantage. Of this is that it’s all noninvasive, so it’s not like if you had a nonhuman animal. Oftentimes, you can open the scalp and then put some electrodes and then measure actual electrical activity in the brain. And you can’t really do that with a human. The opening the brain of the skull of undergraduate student is frowned upon.
01:00:06 BradleyHa, ha, ha.
01:00:08 SebastienSo, we can use fMRI to do something that is a little bit similar. It’s more indirect in that you’re looking at blood flow instead of actual neural activity, but it’s a good proxy and it actually helps a lot to understand how, how people solve tasks.
01:00:26 BradleySo that’s different from I know that you could put on a, a net or a something on somebody’s head and look at which part of the brain is activated. You know, in response to stuff, have you seen research that has combined the two of them? Not at the same time, obviously, but combining each of those or. When would you use the fMRI versus putting that that net or that hat on, on somebody to see the different brain you know activity?
01:00:57 SebastienSo that’s an interesting question. So, what you’re describing is EEG, or electroencephalogram, so there’s so EEG is older. EEG doesn’t measure blood flow; it actually measures electrical activity. But electrical activity through the scalp, so it’s very noisy and you get this tradeoff between these two methods. In that EEG because you’re measuring electrical signal, it has a very high temporal resolution, so you can tell millisecond to millisecond how the electrical activity in the brain changes. Uh, but because you’re taking the signal that goes through the scalp, it’s actually really hard to know where it’s coming from, so you have a general idea that it comes from this general part of the of the brain, but you can’t pinpoint like with high precision the location where the signal is coming from. Also, since you’re measuring from the surface of the scalp, you only have access to activity that’s on the surface of the brain, so there’s a lot of stuff going on as well. Uhm, that is, in the middle of the brain. Now fMRI allows you to have a much better spatial resolution with modern machines you can get about a 1-millimeter resolution, which is still a lot of neurons, but it’s way better than EEG. But then you’re measuring blood flow and blood flow changes much more slowly than electricity, so you lose that temporal resolution. So, you essentially have this tradeoff, so on the one hand, you have good temporal resolution but bad spatial resolution, so you have a millisecond per millisecond signal, but you don’t really know where it’s coming from.

In the other hand, you have signal that, uhm, you can pinpoint where it’s coming from pretty well, but then it doesn’t change very quickly. Uhm so. Then the possibility to try to get the best of both worlds would be to use both, as you were suggesting so early research tried using both separately, which is what you suggested, so you could have the same person do the task in the MRI scanner and then take him out, then do the same task with an EEG cap and then try to correlate the signal. That’s actually doesn’t work all that well because you never do the task exactly the same way twice, and also, it’s hard to match the two signal. Uhm, there are now, um, what they call MRI compatible EEG system. So now you can do both at the same time. There are EEG system that you can put on your head and then go in the scanner with it. But the scanner actually creates a ton of noise in the EEG signal. So, analyzing the data is very tricky and challenging. But that’s an active area of research in biomedical engineering, and progress is being made on this. It’s not my research, so I don’t know like I wouldn’t be able to say much about how it’s progressing, but I know people are working on this and, actually, Purdue just acquired one once. There’s a faculty in biomedical engineering that just acquired a system like this, and he’s working on, on this trying to find good ways of using it.
01:04:04 BradleyThe other thing that comes to mind when you’re describing that is OK. Well, then you’d have to randomize the subjects first. They go into the fMRI, then they do the EEG and then the other half, just the opposite. But in either case you’ve already exposed them to that stimula, or stimuli, and they’re already predisposed, and they already are, are expecting it, so you’re not really getting true results on the second portion of that as well. So, it’s interesting that you brought that up. Now, you mentioned Dr. Huber before…Dr. Huber is at Purdue Motor Speech Lab. I did see that you were also a collaborator. Uh, for her, for that speech lab as well, tell me how you got involved in that? Or did that just kind of naturally grow out of your relationship and, and the research that you and Dr. Huber were working on?
01:04:55 SebastienYeah, that that just that just grew from me, ah, meeting with uh, with Dr. Huber. So, when I, I met with her, we had this common interest in Parkinsons, so we started working together and then I ended up, following this, ended up getting a courtesy appointment in the Speech Language and Hearing Science Department where she is and that actually made me interact a lot with people in that department and actually ended up with a few different collaboration in that department. I don’t know much about speech and language, but uhm, they clearly rely on cognitive activity and so this is where we can meet in the middle and actually try to better understand how these things work.
01:05:37 BradleyWell, it’s always nice to see the collaboration between and among different departments and, and research areas at universities. So here you have multiple hats. So, what do you love most about your jobs and, and be specific on which part of your job you love the most?
01:05:54 SebastienI think that what I love most is the mentoring aspect. Mentoring research, smart students. Like I, I mentioned earlier, I like to keep the lab small. I like to spend time with the students, one on one and actually like teach them how to do research and it’s nice that you essentially are always interacting with these newer scientists who are, they’re all brilliant, they just haven’t learned yet, and they have all these ideas and it kind of keeps you on your toes. They’re constantly challenging things that we start as soon as we start assuming that something is true, then someone comes along and challenges the idea. And it I think it’s very stimulating and um, I’d say that’s the best part of my work. I love doing the research the most and doing the research with, with students.
01:06:45 BradleyOK, and I usually ask a few fun questions at the end here of all my guests. So, the first one is what is your favorite term principle or theory and why?
01:06:56 SebastienWell, I’d say right now so that I would give you a different answer to that question every six months or so.
01:07:02 BradleySure, yep.
01:07:04 SebastienBut I’d say right now it’s neuroeconomics. So that’s a compression of neuroscience and economics, and it’s essentially this idea of using behavioral economics method to study the brain. The assumption here is that the brain is a machine that has learned through evolution to just optimize cost benefit. So, you’re essentially for every task, every choice you make, everything is you memorize it, it’s always based on how, how useful, how valuable do I think it is for me to do this and how much effort is it going to take for me to do this? It actually is a good way to completely rethink all of the existing paradigms. And it’s been, people have been doing neuroeconomics now for about 20 years. But I recently maybe five or six years ago started getting really interested in that, in that area. And this is what brought my interest into the valuation aspect where I’m really interested in how people assign value to things. Uhm, and I would say like specifically, like right now one of the things I’m really interested in is effort discounting, which is a fairly new part of neuroeconomics and small subfield, but it’s essentially how do people evaluate how much efforts something is going to take, and how do they decide if, if a reward is worth the work?
01:08:31 BradleyWell, it lends itself well to what you were discussing earlier that you’re now focused on that decision making process and the evaluation of that. So, it’s interesting that you brought that up. What is something new that you have learned recently?
01:08:45 SebastienSo, one thing that I learned recently, it actually comes from one of my grad students, and is that the that tenant in neuroeconomics that people are always trying to optimize that cost benefit analysis, is actually not always true, and part of this is we started running experiments in my lab where we are looking at for some fixed amount of reward, we give them tasks that can be that can require more effort and has it require low effort and people will pick high effort tasks for no reason just for the challenge. And that actually is something that I never expected. Uhm, it was predicted by my grad student. I just didn’t believe her, so we ran this study. It turns out she’s right, so now I’m excited about this and I’m trying to figure out if reward itself can be rewarding.
01:09:38 BradleyI wonder if that is.
01:09:39 SebastienI mean, if the effort itself can be rewarding.
01:09:42 BradleyRight, I wonder if in that study or future studies you’re going to look at different age groups, and if there’s a difference or significant difference between ages when it comes to that decision making and whether or not you go for the more difficult task. Just brainstorming off the top of my head, that’s the first thing that came to mind there because I was thinking maybe younger people or older people might have a different perspective on do, I really want to spend all of this time and energy on this task versus this easy one, and it might really depend on your life, you know experiences and where you are in your life as well so.
01:10:18 SebastienThat’s an interesting hypothesis. We know that there are important differences as you age with regards to how reward is being proud. As a general rule, like if I just paint a broad stroke, older adults tend to value reward less than younger adults. And there’s good reason to think that this is all related to a, a specific chemical in your brain neurotransmitter that’s called dopamine and dopamine seems to have a really important relationship with reward processing, and dopamine actually decreases substantially as part of the normal aging process, so there’s a very small number of neurons in your brain that produce all the dopamine for all the brain and you lose about 10% of these neurons for every decade of your life, and they never come back. So that means as you grow older, you have less and less dopamine available. For your whole brain, and if it’s true that dopamine is related to how you are motivated to seek reward, then that would mean that older adults actually would behave differently in a task like this.
01:11:29 BradleyThat’s interesting that you brought that up. ’cause now I’m thinking about, I’m I I’m. I, I love skydiving and doing all sorts of stuff and so as, as you grow older, I wonder if that, that feeling that you get from your brain sending out those signals of jumping out of an airplane or going down a river. Or you know, doing whatever. If that also decreases. And then that’s why you need more of it. As you grow older to reach that same level that you were experiencing earlier in your life.
01:12:00 SebastienWell, there’s two things going on here, so the first one is exactly what you pointed out. You have less dopamine, so you’ll need more for it. But the other thing is that dopamine is actually related to the mismatch between your expectation and what you actually get, so people tend to simplify and think that the more reward you get, the more dopamine you get. That’s not true.
01:12:14 BradleyOK.
01:12:20 SebastienIt’s the more dopamine you get is if you get more reward than what you expect. So, I’m, I’m going to steal an example from Dr. Ashby here, but when you finish when you graduate from school and you get your first real job and all of a sudden, your salary goes up by like a substantial amount, this is the first time you get a good job. Your first paycheck is exciting and then your, your 50th paycheck a few years down the road, you don’t care as much ’cause you’re actually expecting that money and actually you be upset if you didn’t get.
01:12:48 BradleyRight.
01:12:52 SebastienSo, it’s this idea that you always have expectation and it’s whenever something is better than your expectation you get the dopamine. So, if you skydive every day, at some point you know exactly how that feels and you’re not going to get dopamine. I mean just whatever happened just matches your expectations. So, you’ll need to do something more.
01:13:11 BradleyNo, that’s a good analogy actually. Now I think back in my skydiving days and I still. I’m a licensed skydiver, but I think I have 23 or 26 recorded jumps, solo jumps, the people that I would go and skydive with, hundreds if not thousands of jumps, and it was just more routine for them to go up. I’m still so excited and you know, getting ready to jump out there going OK, come on, Brad, let’s go, let’s go and now that kind of puts it into perspective. Now that we’ve talked about the dopamine and the and the role that that plays. So, the next question I have for you is outside of academia, or you can include academia, what’s the most important thing that you’ve learned in your life?
01:13:51 SebastienThat’s a tough one, huh? I would say that uhm. One thing I’ve learned is that there’s always going to be more work than time. Like I’ve I have a pile of article. Well, I guess now I have a metaphorical pile of article, because now I read articles online, but back in the days you go to the library, and you photocopy or it. I mean not that long ago, and so I’ve had a pile of article on my desk, and I would read some, but I would always find new article interesting and then add them to the file and the file always grows. It’s never going down and early on I would get anxious about this, and then I realized at some point eventually I will die and there’s going to be a pile of article. So uhm and, and that’s fine. Or maybe I’ll retire. Let’s be more positive.
01:14:46 BradleyRight, right, you’re not going to be. You’re not going to be sitting there on your deathbed, but saying, Oh my gosh, my one regret is I didn’t get through those pile of articles.
01:14:56 SebastienSo, there’s always going to be more and more work than time, and so you need to. You need to accept that. And one thing I would say like interacting with a lot of faculty on a daily basis is that you need to learn to prioritize. Prioritize them, sorry. So, what I’m noticing is that people who are the most successful tend to be people who are good at figuring out what’s important and what’s not. And you shouldn’t waste your time on things that are not important unless you’re not good at figuring out what’s important and what’s not. But if you’re good at it then you should focus your time on what’s important and prioritize it. Then you’ll get the most work done. Uhm, so I think that’s one way to deal with the excess amount of work.

Then the other thing is I think people need to. It’s important to keep a life outside of your work. Uhm, scientists tend to be very passionate. I’m also very passionate about my work. I love my work, but it’s important too that when you leave the office, you leave the office and then you do something else. Um, I, I see like, I interact with a lot of, of people who have a hard time retiring when they get to the end of their career as an academic and a lot of them just stay around. Uhm until, until they get sick or something like that. And I think that can be tricky. And so, I think it’s important to keep hobbies and keep having things outside, outside of work. Keep friends outside of work as well, I’d say these are the most important things I’ve learned.
01:16:36 BradleyGreat advice, great advice and a good reminder to everybody to, to focus on things that are important. If you had time and money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do?
01:16:55 SebastienUh, well, let’s see. You mean outside, uh outside of research outside of academia? Or do you mean in my work?
01:17:02 BradleyAny yeah, could be inside or outside. I’ve had some guests…I’ll buy you some time so you can think a little bit…I’ve had some guests talk about projects outside of work. Others definitely thought of a project inside of work. So again, if you had any time or money. If you had all the time or all the money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do inside or outside of academic?
01:17:26 SebastienWell, if I had, if I had time and money in my experience, I always have one or the other but never both. But if I had both, I would probably spend time become very good at a musical instrument. So, I, I play. I play music. I really enjoy that it’s a hobby, but I’m not very good at it. I’ve been doing it a long time, but I just don’t spend enough time and I’m not really serious about it. But if I had time and money, that means I could like spend my days. Doing this, and then I’d like to. I’d like to essentially become good enough to form a band and go on a tour.
01:18:06 BradleyOK, well that’s interesting. And so, what, what instrument would you choose?
01:18:11 SebastienProbably guitar, because that’s what I mean instrument I play.
01:18:15 BradleyAcoustic, acoustic or electric?
01:18:18 SebastienUhm, while I can play both but um most, I play mostly electric.
01:18:23 BradleyOK. Alright, well that’s interesting. That’s fun. That’s a good answer. The final question I have for you. Is there anything else that you would like to discuss or bring up in this podcast?
01:18:34 SebastienAh no, I think we’ve covered pretty much everything. Uhm, I thought this was really interesting to be part of, of this podcast, it’s my first time being on the podcast. Uhm, I hope this was useful to listeners, but I really enjoyed my time I’m sharing this with you guys.
01:18:51 BradleyI appreciate the time and your willingness to share your thoughts and experiences. It definitely is beneficial to our audience. We usually have feedback. And, and definitely the perspective be, with your Canadian experience to the American is, is interesting. I found that very interesting as well. So, I, I appreciate you taking the time and, and sharing your story and advice with us, Sebastian, I, I want to wish you good luck on your future projects as well, and we’ll keep in touch.
01:19:22 SebastienThank you.
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