My Quest on becoming a Brain Detective

Our new addition to the expert’s section this week: Gábor Csifcsák, a Hungarian postdoctoral research fellow working in Tromsø at the Arctic Universtiy of Norway.  His current work is focusing on a novel non-invasive paradigm with the goal of ameliorating cognitive symptoms in depression and chronic pain. In his interview he talks about challenges in science but also about the rewarding prospects of making new discoveries. Gábor provides advice for those planning to embark on the journey of research, and about balancing work and family life for those who are already in science.



How did you get here?

I obtained a diploma as a medical doctor at the University of Szeged (UoSz), Hungary, and started working on my PhD at the Department of Psychiatry of the same university. My work focused on neural activity related to the processing of simple auditory stimuli in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Later, I also worked on the effects of a non-invasive brain stimulation technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on pain perception in healthy adults. Given that I was always more interested in research than medical work, in 2007 I started working at the Department of Psychology (UoSz), where besides teaching anatomy, physiology and cognitive neuroscience to psychology students, I also supervised work at the Electroencephalography (EEG) Lab. Here, we focused on recording and analyzing brain signals (event-related potentials and oscillations) related to the processing of visual stimuli in health adults and school-aged children.  In 2016 I applied for the postdoc position in Tromsø, because I wanted to change my focus of research and work again with non-invasive brain stimulation techniques and investigate their effects in neuropsychiatric conditions such as depression and chronic pain.

What is your focus?

Currently, we are working on establishing a new tDCS paradigm that would be more efficient in improving certain cognitive symptoms in depression and chronic pain. In particular, we use a special card game task that enables evaluating how people learn from reward and punishment to optimize their decision-making. We use tDCS to improve their choices, because we believe that this might lead to beneficial clinical outcomes in these disorders.

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

It is ever-changing and you always learn new things! I am fascinated about what we’ve already learned about the functioning of the brain, but even more about those things we still know very little about. It is fascinating to think about how activity in our nervous system might be related to human behavior and subjective phenomena such as feelings, thoughts or dreams.  Conducting research is sometimes frustrating, but it can be extremely exciting to test your own hypotheses.

What are the biggest challenges?

Facing uncertainty, I guess. You can never be sure about what the outcome of our research will be, you can sometimes realize too late if something went wrong with the research, and of course, you can never be certain about how other researchers, journal editors and reviewers will respond to your findings. Also, it is very difficult for me to lean back and have a rest without thinking about something related to my work, because it never really ends. Sure, by publishing a paper you can finish a project, but there are always more projects running in parallel, and of course, you always have to think ahead by finding ways to finance your research.

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for a student deciding upon her/his field?

For students interested in science and research, I would recommend focusing on learning methods for data collection and analysis very well. Statistics and programming are of key importance even if it takes much effort from your side. Also, when searching for a PhD position, I think that finding a helpful and experienced supervisor is more important than conducting research in the topic you are most interested about. You’ll have time doing your research later, when you’ve acquired the basic skills.

Do you feel that you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?

Not really, I’m happy to work in this field and I can’t really think of doing anything else. Actually, sometimes I regret not sacrificing more in my junior years.

What are the challenges you are facing in your everyday life? Can you give some advice for the upcoming generation of researchers?

Finding time for everything can be hard. As I mentioned earlier, it can be really difficult to relax when I’m really immersed in a project. I think that you should have a hobby that you really enjoy (e.g., sports, playing an instrument, etc.) in order to get away from science for a while.

If  you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now what would they be?

  1. Science should be more transparent: researchers should make their data and alaysis methods available to everyone and all publications should be open-access.
  2. On the other hand, reviewers and even action editors should be blind to the names and affiliations of manuscript authors.
  3. Conference talks should be available online.

Being a scientist with kids do you feel that it is hard to balance family and work life? Do you have any suggestions or encouragements for readers?

Yes, it can be difficult. During the years, I learned to lower my expectations about my scientific career and I think this was for the benefit of my family life.

Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a fellow scientist (younger or older) or any person interested in science?

Science is for everyone and it is never too late to be a researcher!

What did you want to be as a kid?

A detective.

Cat or a dog person?


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