Dr. Anne Urai
UVic Women in Science presents an postdoc interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Dr. Anne Urai is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Anne Churchland’s lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she is a part of International Brain Laboratory Consortium. As a cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. Anne combines psychophysics and computational modelling of behavioural data with electrophysiological recordings in humans and rodents.
Please tell us about yourself and your scientific journey. I study how our brains achieve the amazing feat of processing the overload of information coming in through our senses, and making useful decisions based on it. To do that, I design simple computer tasks that humans or mice play in the lab, and I measure their brain activity while they’re making a series of decisions. With these combined brain and behaviour measurements, I build mathematical models that try to explain how the two are linked. For example, how can we infer from the kinds of choices people have made in the past what they’re likely to do next?
What inspired you to pursue a career in neuroscience? I like to joke that I ended up a cognitive neuroscientist as a result of a scheduling coincidence. Throughout high school, I couldn’t choose between focusing on science courses and humanities – luckily, my school was flexible enough to let me combine them. In my first semester in college, I signed up for a number of courses that sounded interesting, including quantum physics, modern philosophy, and cell biology. ‘Cognitive neuroscience’ was the first one I was placed into. While I didn’t know much about the brain, or cognitive science, I was immediately fascinated.
Neuroscience offers a great combination of traditional STEM fields while also speaking to fundamental questions about the mind: why do we experience the world as we do? Can we understand why people make certain (sometimes inexplicable) decisions, even with clear information? It’s fascinating to think and speculate about the ways in which this clump of meat in our skull makes us who we are. But who knows – if the first course that semester had been chemistry or genetics, I might have been doing research in a different field now.
What is the most interesting project you have worked on and why? I currently work on a large collaborative project with researchers from across the world, all teaming up to achieve the same goal of trying to understand how the brain makes decisions (https://www.internationalbrainlab.com/). Coordinating and agreeing, across time zones and labs, how best to do things is challenging and can sometimes be frustrating – but it’s also inspiring to spend my time with people who are just as excited about the big questions as I am.
What’s the most amazing or surprising thing you’ve learned so far in your postdoc career? I’ve been very lucky to be in a place full of top-notch biologists, and I’ve learned a lot about all the amazing biological and neuroscience tools available. I was trained as a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, so I had a lot to learn about genetics, molecules, cells and related techniques.
How do you maintain your work-life balance? I’m constantly learning how to do it better - science can be hard, and it’s difficult to be immune to the pressure. I try to benefit from the flexibility of science: sometimes it’s necessary to work evenings or weekends, but taking the afternoon off when the sun is shining, or sleeping in after late work, is important to keep you sane.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I hope to have my own research lab, studying how different animals make decisions. I’d love to be in a place where I can collaborate with people from different disciplines - and preferably somewhere near a beach!
As per the statistics, 6 out 7 graduate students leave academia after grad school to pursue careers in non-academic sectors. In your opinion, what needs to be changed to attract more grad students to pursue a postdoc position? I wouldn’t say we need to attract more grad students to do postdocs - in fact, the opposite is true. While doing a postdoc can be a great step in your career, I also think it’s important to be aware of other opportunities that may be just as rewarding and interesting. Given the relative scarcity of permanent jobs in academia, I think doing a postdoc should be a deliberate choice for those wanting to pursue an academic career, instead of being the default post-PhD choice.
What advice do you have for grad students who are interested in pursuing a post doctorate? What do you think are the major factors to keep in mind when deciding on a postdoc research focus and supervisor? Start thinking about postdocs early. I began considering options over a year before defending my thesis. This gives you enough time to evaluate options, such as finding a potential postdoc advisor and looking for funding opportunities. Writing my thesis with a postdoc contract signed was a great motivation to finish up and helped me relax about job searching in the final months of my PhD.
When I started thinking about a postdoc, I kept a list of professors whose work I liked. I then tried to find out more about them and their labs - a bit of online research goes a long way! It was important to me to join a lab that not only did research that I was interested in, but also was passionate about improving science - sharing data and code, making academia more diverse and welcoming, and being ambitious in combining different approaches. Speaking in person (at conferences, or over Skype) with potential advisors and lab mates is crucial in finding out whether you get excited talking about science together. Always talk to people in your potential lab about their general lives, and do not be afraid to prioritize things apart from the project that matter to you - after all, you’ll spend a good few years living and working in a specific place. Being happy there will make you a better scientist.
How was the transition from grad student to postdoc? What are the biggest obstacles you encountered during this transition and how did you overcome them? The biggest immediate transition for me was moving from The Netherlands to the US - academic jobs often involve moving to different countries, which is both exciting and difficult. It took me a bit of time to get used to the cultural changes! At work, one of the biggest challenges has been to juggle many more tasks than as a grad student - building up my postdoc project, while at the same time trying to finish up papers from grad school, reviewing papers, and reading up on my new field. I try to stay organized using the ‘getting things done’ method, which helps me to make sure I don’t miss important deadlines. It’s been very important and helpful to me to find mentors at different career stages to help me navigate the new responsibilities that come with being a postdoc.