Brain Sciences


Laura Convertino

Laura Convertino is a PhD student within the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology.

Image is of Laura, smiling at the camera.

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science and International Women's Day, we caught up with Laura to ask them about their research, their role models and their goals for the future.

Can you tell us about your interest in neuroscience and why you think it’s so valuable that it be studied?

As a medical student I soon developed a strong interest for the brain above any other organ. During my clinical training, however, I realised how little we know about it and how my curiosity could not be satisfied by either neurology or psychiatry training. Research in neuroscience has been the perfect way to follow my passion and to close the gap between two approaches to the study of the brain that rarely interact in clinical settings.

Can you tell us about what you are working on at the moment in this particular area?

My research focuses on the interaction and interference between semantic and episodic memory, with a particular focus on the hippocampal formation. I work on behavioural, MEG and fMRI experiments, as well as computational modelling with active inference and successor representation approaches. My PhD project started with the study of false memory, and it’s now evolving towards the broader investigation on the grey area between different (but not so separate) aspects of declarative memory.

Can you tell us about a piece of research that you are particularly proud of?

I am particularly proud of the very first project I started in my PhD at UCL. We focused on an MEG navigation task in Schizophrenic patients and investigated abnormalities in theta frequencies and grid cells firing patterns. I am particularly proud of this project because it gave me the opportunity to learn and to transition from medicine into cognitive and computational neuroscience. Coming from medicine with a research background in system neuroscience, I had little knowledge and experience in coding, data analysis and neuroimaging. At the beginning, I sometimes wondered whether I would have ever been able to finalise the project and learn quickly enough. We are now at the final stages of it and looking back at the start I could not be prouder of how much I learnt, thanks to the incredible support of my supervisors.

You launched the Under-represented Student Mentorship Scheme. Can you tell us more about how that came about and what the scheme provides?

In August 2020 I joined the Equity Diversity and Inclusion committee of the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging. Our very first conversation landed on how academia, and neuroscience in our specific case, still suffers from lack of representation for many people. In 2018, I co-founded the international association ‘Science for Democracy’, which works to promote the human right to science. Freedom of research and evidence-based policies are only part of the fundamental elements protected by the right to science. Equally important is the possibility to access knowledge, and to have equity in opportunities to practice science and to benefit from its progress. Having worked for these core values for years, I joined the committee with the hope of making a difference in my academic environment. I was truly lucky to find committed and driven people with similar ideas, and we soon started discussing the possibility of a new mentorship scheme to support students coming from underrepresented groups to access a post-graduate research careers in neuroscience. The core idea of the scheme is to match mentors (in their PhDs or early postdoc positions) and mentees (students at the end of their masters) based on similar background and experiences, when possible, and to support the mentees throughout the process of selecting the best programme for their interests and skills, applying for PhD programmes and finding fundings opportunities. Importantly, we want to train or mentors so that they are ready to provide advice and help with doubts and issues related to the specific identity of our mentees. It is of pivotal importance that elements related to ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic background, disabilities, neurodivergence, mental health issues do not interfere and negatively affect the choice of pursuing a career in academia. We hope that this scheme will provide students not only with practical help, but also with the certainty that they belong to academia and that academia needs them to grow.

What tips or advice would you give to women looking to advance up the career ladder in science related fields?

Not to be afraid of failing; failing is okay for anyone. As a non-binary person talking to people with different background and experiences, it strikes me how often we - women and ‘non-white-cis-heterosexual-male’ researchers - do not take the risk for fear of failing. The reasons are deeply embedded in our society and in the feeling that not everyone can afford second chances. However, the fear of failing is what stops us trying.

Do you have any advice for young girls interested in studying STEM subjects, particularly those nearing the end of their time at school who may be considering their next steps?

If there is anything pulling them back, I would advise to reach out to other women who are already in STEM. Science is great and gives you the power of knowledge and understanding. It is not just about the content of your studies, it is more than anything about the skills to learn how to learn new things and read the word with a clear mind. These are fundamental components of power and self-determination, and nobody can take them away.

In your opinion, what are the top skills needed to succeed as a scientific researcher?

There is surely a lot of luck involved, but determination, hard work and being a good team player are important elements for any successful researcher.

Do you have any goals that you would like to accomplish this year?

I wish I will be able to complete my last fMRI experiment, and 2 computational models of memory, before starting to finalise my PhD dissertation. Another goal is to prepare my application for the academic clinical training in neuropsychiatry. Fingers crossed…

Who is someone that you admire, and why?

My grandmother. She was born in 1928 in a poor family of farmers in North Italy and completed only the third year of primary school, just before the war. However, she has always been a profoundly curious person, and managed to keep on learning and studying for her entire life, pushing her kids to attend university and to travel to learn more about the world. She even went to the US for the first time in her 70s. We can have discussions on religion, gender identity, politics, as well as history and opera. No matter the topic, no matter how different our views can be, she is always open minded and willing to listen and to critically reconsider her views. I think this is the best teaching I could have had. If I will be able to keep on learning and allowing the world to prove me wrong in my 90s, I will know I did one thing right in life.

What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?

Walking, possibly with a coffee, while I plan the next venture.