Interview with scientist – Christopher Madan

This week we had a pleasure of speaking to Dr. Christopher Madan. Christopher is an assistant professor in the school of Psychology at the University of Nottingham.

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Tell us about yourself.
My name is Dr. Christopher Madan and I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham (UK) in the School of Psychology. I grew up in western Canada and completed my undergraduate and PhD studies at the University of Alberta. During my PhD I also spent a year abroad as a visiting scientist at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany. Prior to my faculty position, I was a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College (USA). While moving between countries and continents for an academic career is often not practical or even a viable option, it can lead to exciting opportunities and long-lasting collaborations that can really make a difference.

What’s your area of research?
Currently I have two parallel areas: (1) the role of motivational factors, such as emotion and reward, on memory, and (2) characterizing individual differences in brain structure. In the first line of work I study how emotional and rewarding experiences are remembered differently than more mundane experiences, primarily using a cognitive psychology approach, but also borrowing methods from neuroimaging and computational modeling as necessary to further the research. Here I seek to understand how some experiences can automatically capture our attention and be remembered better, though often to the detriment of memory for peripheral information. In the second line of research, I study how cortical and subcortical structure differs between individuals, with an emphasis on age-related differences. This work currently involves the development of novel computational measures to characterize the shape of brain structures, rather than relying on more coarse, volumetric measures such as cortical thickness and subcortical volume. In on-going work, I am applying these methods to better understand structural differences associated with dementia and for comparisons across primate species.

What do you think about the current publication trend?
I think the shift towards open science—particularly open data and open software is incredible for the advancement of science. In my brain morphology work in particular, I am often using open-access datasets with brain MRI data from hundreds of individuals to develop new analysis methods, which I then make open as well. I am also one of the founding editors for the Journal of Open Source Software (JOSS) [http://joss.theoj.org] and seeing submissions there makes me think that the future is changing, with software papers becoming more common and more valued.

Is publish or perish a valid statement for young scientists?
To some degree—but I think not as much as it used to be. You definitely need to publish some, especially early on, to become known in the field and have something to show as a demonstration of your interests and abilities. That said, the world is becoming more collaborative and team science is the way forward. While you do need to be able to explain what your role and contribution to the project were, science is becoming a bit less competitive and less ‘you vs. the world’. Open-access data and software are one instance of this more cooperative and collegial future.

What do you think of preprint servers? Do you think they are useful?
Preprint servers can be great to improving papers while they are still malleable. Sometimes these benefits are not publicly apparent—for instance, when one of my recent papers was posted as a preprint [https://peerj.com/articles/5176/], a researcher contacted me directly and provided some suggestions for analyses to be included in a revision. Preprints can also be great for sharing the findings of your work afterwards, providing potential readers with a means of accessing your publication without any paywalls.

 Despite the positives, preprint servers—at least the ones I have used, all also have some headaches associated with them: bioRxiv only accepts pre-acceptance manuscripts, not post-prints and generally only accepts empirical papers (i.e., no opinion or review papers). PeerJ Preprints doesn’t accept papers that make recommendations that can be considered diagnostic—for instance, I have been rejected here for including recommendations on how to decrease MRI scan artifacts in my conclusions. PsyArXiv is quite good and is almost bereft of any qualms, though does have one small annoyance—revisions to the preprint must bear the same filename (e.g., don’t include the date in your filename!).

Do you think science is communicated well to non-scientists? What are some ways to improve science communication?
Generally—not so well. There are many skills that are relevant to being a successful academic, but many of these skills are mutually exclusive of each other and not often formally trained. While proficiency in scientific writing is critical to scientific training, science communication is rarely a focus—and the goals are quite different, precision in conveying information vs. highlighting the relevance of recent work in a way that is engaging and understandable to those without years of background in the field. While scientists can work to improve their science communication skills themselves through opportunities such as ComSciCon [https://comscicon.com], science communication needs to be more valued in itself within the academic community, particularly through the involvement (and hiring!) of individuals explicitly trained in science communication working with researchers, just like how you would hire dedicated staff as lab technicians.

As we know, there are more PhD’s graduating every year as compared to available tenure track positions. Do you think there is way to improve this?
An increasing number of PhDs is not a problem itself, it’s a matter of expectations and what is considered as acceptable careers following the PhD. A PhD involves the learning, development, and proficiency of a set of specialist skills, both domain-specific and domain-general. Domain-specific skills could include tasks such as pipetting and administering neuropsychology tests, while domain-general ones include public speaking, supervision of more junior trainees, data organization, and critical thinking. A much greater proportion of PhDs will inevitably pursue non-academic positions than tenure-track positions, so we need to consider this during the PhD itself and what path are we preparing PhDs for. Specifics will vary from student-to-student, as there is a wide variety of potential paths that may follow a PhD, and different disciplines will lend themselves towards different sets of options. Being upfront about this reality before grad school begins, as well as throughout grad school itself (e.g., inviting former students to come back and talk to students about their journey and current position) will better prepare current students for their future. Being accepting and encouraging of plans for non-academic positions, as well as being facilitatory in providing opportunities that can serve as relevant experience for these subsequent positions is extremely important.

Pursuing a non-academic position after a bachelor degree is perfectly reasonable, we value the degree for the broader skills and experience that it is associated with. We need to start thinking of PhD degrees more similarly, while undoubtedly more demanding and more specialized, they also are associated with valuable skills and experience—not only a precursor to a career in academia.

What are alternative career options for young scientists apart from applying for tenure track positions?
I think this is a really important question! Some paths that I looked into while applying for faculty positions were in data science, software development, science communication and big pharma. There are a lot of ‘soft skills’ related to research, it’s just a matter of deciding what parts to highlight and try and find a career around! Awhile back I came across a great visual that gives an overview of the variety of skills related to academic research [https://www.vitae.ac.uk/vitae-publications/rdf-related/introducing-the-vitae-researcher-development-framework-rdf-to-employers-2011.pdf].

Apart from science, what do you enjoy doing the most?
To be honest, I don’t do that much outside of science. I like playing computer games to take a break. I often watch ‘let’s plays’ videos online, where someone records themselves playing a game and has some of their own commentary mixed in. I find that these are a good background thing to watch, not as eventful as TV shows and can be more enjoyable than playing the game myself. I’m also on Twitter a lot (@cMadan).

 What do you think is a recent scientific invention which has changed the way we do science now?
I guess it depends on what we count as ‘recent’. I think it’s amazing how recent of a technology is the development of human brain MRIs are. Human MRIs were first done in the 1970s—though that’s about 50 years ago and not particularly recent—the quality of MR imaging we have today has drastically improved since then. The MRI center at the University of Nottingham is named after Sir Peter Mansfield, who—along with Paul Lauterbur (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)—won the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work with MRI. It’s amazing to think about how we can visualize the structure and function of the brain using MRI and how this technology has changed over the last few decades.

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