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The 8th of March is the International Woman’s Day 2017. We’re using the whole week to celebrate the achievements of our women scientists at the Department of Experimental Psychology.

As part of our celebrations, we have developed a blog series featuring our female researchers.

 

Catherine Perrodin

Catherine Perrodin is a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology.

1. If you would have to summarise your research interest in one question, what would it be?

“How do neurons in our brain analyse social sounds in order to enable us to communicate with each other?”

 

2. How did you become interested in your current research topic?

“During my BSc at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, I worked on a summer research project in which I was performing patch-clamp recordings in rat brain slices. Under the microscope, I could visually select a particular neuron which I contacted with my electrode. I was then able to “talk” to the neuron by sending it different types of electrical signals, and recording its responses. Being able to pick out a live neuron and listen in to its activity in real time was mind-blowing! This experience ignited my curiosity for deciphering the patterns of electrical activity we can pick up from neurons, an approach I still use in my current research. I subsequently switched my focus away from in vitro work towards studying how neurons in intact, awake animals behave in response to sensory stimulation by interesting complex signals, such as vocalizations or faces.”

Building a multiple-tetrode recording microdrive (photo: C. Perrodin)

 

3. What were the key experiences that have shaped your interests/your career?

​”I certainly never imagined becoming a neuroscientist as a child, and can trace the origin of my career trajectory back to two important defining events during my last year of high school. I majored in Latin throughout secondary and high school and enjoyed it very much, yet this branding as a “language/classics” profile did not feel like a great fit ahead of starting university. An orientation assessment suggested I consider getting an engineering degree, which was quite a change of culture: during my first week at EPFL, I had no idea what people meant by “coding”!  After 5 fun and stimulating years I graduated as a biomedical engineer.”

What sealed the game for becoming a scientist was meeting my first neuroscientist.

“What sealed the game for becoming a scientist was meeting my first neuroscientist.”


I visited a local neuroscience lab, a few rooms full of screens, cables and computers, among which a short, energetic Asian woman was leading a group studying the cellular causes of schizophrenia. She was full of energy and radiating with passion for her work. Many preconceptions about what real scientists look like, and how science is too detached from the real world to have a tangible and important impact on people, were destroyed that day.”

“Since then, I have crossed paths with inspiring mentors whose work, life and attitude have shown me that there are many different ways to design one’s own, unique research path.”

 

4. If you would have to name a book that has been influential for you, what would it be?

I have very much enjoyed Valentino Braitenberg’s “Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology” (1984). This book is a thought experiment describing how complex, apparently intelligent behaviour can emerge from basic connectivity patterns between the wheels and the sensors of a simple robot (vehicle). The book itself is easy and fun to read with a very tongue-in-cheek humour.”

“In my research, I work with animals to understand how the brain helps us perceive others, and the world around us, as a basis for goal-directed behaviour. In order to achieve this I believe we need to carefully consider how a specific species interacts with its natural environment, since this is the set of challenges its brain has evolved to optimally deal with.”

“In this context Braitenberg’s work is a vivid reminder to use caution when studying the behaviour of other species or neural phenomena more generally. It can be much easier and very tempting to wrongly interpret a behaviour using our imagination, when it might actually result from a completely different set of underlying neuronal principles or motivations. Are you seeing what you want to see? Or is there a less spectacular but maybe more factual explanation for what you are observing?

 

5. As a researcher, what do you do to develop new ideas?

“I get inspired by stepping away from my daily focus and habits, and interacting with lay people and researchers who have a different background from mine.”

“I get inspired by stepping away from my daily focus and habits, and interacting with lay people and researchers who have a different background from mine.”

“While this regularly makes me feel like I am in over my head, it always helps me consider my question and approach the problem from a fresh, sometimes unfamiliar, perspective. How I think about the brain has constantly been enriched by my discussions (or sometimes confrontations!) with other researchers who use different experimental techniques, work with different species or study different sensory systems.”

“I protect “empty” daydreaming time to reflect and take a step back to consider my work from a broader perspective. However I often find that the best way to develop ideas or solve outstanding problems is to discuss them with others. Such conversations, or sometimes even a simple question or a seemingly random comment, always help me order my thoughts or see the problem from a different angle. Research is a collaborative enterprise and tough problems need multiple brains.”

 

Analysing a mouse courtship “love” song (photo: C. Perrodin)

 

6. What’s your favourite part about being a researcher?

“I have two favourite parts! First is the independence and freedom to ask and pursue your own questions in whatever way you think is best. Second is learning and understanding new things daily, and the constant problem-solving. I have to admit that the things I enjoy most about research are also those I find the most difficult at times.”

 

7. What are the current challenges for female researchers in your opinion? How do you deal with them?

I believe the pervasive gender stereotypes that still shape our society and all of our minds are the main source of additional obstacles for women in science, in addition to also causing men to be trapped in similarly rigid and narrow categories. I believe that our lack of awareness of our own biases (e.g. the presumptuous self-proclamation of being “fair” or “gender-blind” often heard from both men and women) is especially perverse. It explicitly prevents reflexion, communication and improvement. My strategies include identifying consistent allies in my immediate environment, and acting as one to the best of my ability, seeking out diverse mentors and peers as sources of inspiration and support, and learning to pick my battles.”

 

8. Is there something you still want to discover with your research in future?

I hope I will one day truly “crack the neural code” for acoustic social communication: that is, reveal the mechanisms through which groups of neurons work together to extract, encode and interpret relevant social information from vocal sounds and other sensory signals. I would also love to develop a device to restore this ability to interpret communication sounds for individuals, patients or situations in which it is degraded or missing.

Learn more about Catherine’s research here.