Inside the mind
Dr. Matthew Parsons’ job is a lot like being a detective. He’s a scientific private eye whose career has focused on studying the human brain and how it works. He wants to unravel its mysteries. That interest began here at Memorial, when he first began undergraduate studies in 1999. He went on to graduate with a bachelor of science (honours) degree in behavioural neuroscience from the Faculty of Science in 2004; a master of science degree in neuroscience from the Faculty of Medicine in 2006; and then his PhD in neuroscience from the same faculty in 2011. After working as a postdoctoral fellow in British Columbia for several years, Dr. Parsons, who is originally from St. John’s, returned to Newfoundland and Labrador this fall to take up his post as assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine. He thinks one of the keys to success for grad students is getting as much exposure as possible to research opportunities, meeting colleagues at national and international conferences and building a strong network of counterparts. He spoke with contributor Jeff Green.
Specifically, what advice do you have for current and future graduate students?
Building a wide network of colleagues is essential to a successful career in research. After all, these are the people that will be reviewing your next fellowship application or your manuscript, or even acting as external examiner on your thesis committee. These conferences also give a good idea of the important science that is going on outside of Memorial and it’s incredibly important to make every effort to stay up to date on the latest findings.
What were some of your accomplishments or positions as a grad student?
My greatest accomplishment, or set of accomplishments, would have to be my publications in peer-review journals. During my time as a graduate student at MUN, I published a total of 10 peer-review journal articles, including six first-authored publications.
Ultimately, why did you choose Memorial for your graduate degree?
I have always thought that Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine is an excellent place to pursue a graduate degree. The lab sizes are ideal for that first real exposure to conducting your own relatively independent research – not too big, not too small. I have seen many talented researchers get lost in the shuffle in bigger labs and others that don’t receive the support they need in smaller labs. Most of the labs within the Faculty of Medicine conduce high-quality research and consist of a research assistant and a couple of graduate students which, in my mind, makes for a very comfortable and productive work environment.
Who was/were your supervisor(s)?
I was supervised by Dr. Gilbert Kirouac (for my M.Sc.) and Dr. Michiru Hirasawa (for my PhD).
Talk to me about work-life balance and getting involved on campus. For example, over the course of your studies, did you get involved in any societies? How important was it to maintain a work life balance as a graduate student?
In most areas of research, your abilities are largely judged on your publication record. As a graduate student, it really is important to publish first-authored manuscripts in recognized peer-reviewed journals. This makes it much easier (but still far from easy!) to secure external funding and obtain that highly sought postdoctoral position, taking you one step closer to successfully landing a faculty position, if that is the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, publishing your own original research does not happen overnight and it takes an enormous commitment just to collect enough data to include in a manuscript, let alone the time and effort required to analyze, interpret and write-up the findings. There are a plenty of ups and downs associated with research – you can, and will, completely mess up an experiment, which will waste your entire day or week. The key is to be able to leave all of that behind when you go home for the day. This comes more naturally to some than others but I also think that it’s something that can be worked on.
I have always made a substantial effort to maintain a healthy work-life balance and, by being able to leave work at work, I have managed to find plenty of time for family, friends and hobbies.
With such an emphasis on publishing your own research, I did find it difficult to get involved in other activities on campus outside of the lab. However, I did manage to find a few tasks that I found rewarding and that also contributed to my overall enjoyment of the graduate program. One example was the regular assistance I would give to the Medical School students with the neuroanatomy component of their program. I received a lot of positive feedback from the students and it helped to build my confidence as a teacher. I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would and it the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really eat up too much of my time.
What did you like the most about being a grad student at Memorial?
I liked the independence you are given as a graduate student. Once you have learned the techniques and have built the trust of your supervisor, you have quite a bit of freedom in terms of how you plan out your workday. If I didn’t feel like writing, I could do experiments; if I didn’t feel like doing experiments I could do some writing or work on a presentation or analyze some data. Few positions give you that kind of flexibility.
That said, my favourite part of being a grad student in the Faculty of Medicine was the research. I loved the fact that I was making discoveries that nobody had made before and that I was contributing to our overall understanding of how the brain works. It’s an incredibly complex organ and a lot of people across the planet have dedicated their careers to unraveling the brain’s mysteries. I’m just happy that I get to be part of that group. It’s incredibly challenging but incredibly rewarding at the same time.
When did you leave N.L.? Where did you go and what did you do there?
I left N.L. in 2011 to move to Vancouver, B.C., where I took a position as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia.
Why did you return home?
I was offered a faculty position. To be able to do what I love in my hometown … well, not many people get that kind of luck. A combination of hard work and luck made it possible for me. I will miss Vancouver’s lack of wind and their cheap sushi, but overall, it’s good to be home.
What are you doing now?
As a new faculty member, my days consist of grant writing and more grant writing. I am also talking to a lot of different vendors and am purchasing the equipment necessary to start the research. Neurons communicate with each other by releasing neurotransmitters and my lab will focus on identifying and understanding the small, subtle alterations in neurotransmitter signalling that occur in certain neurodegenerative diseases. This requires some very specialized equipment. Starting a lab is an expensive endeavour (not currently helped by the Canadian dollar!), so funding is required not only for the equipment, but to hire a research assistant and to pay for a few graduate student stipends, which will be leveraged in part through the School of Graduate Studies and Research and Graduate Studies.
As a student, did you receive any top awards?
Yes, these included the following:
- 2005 - Alfred Burness Graduate Student Award
- 2005 - Best M.Sc. Presentation, Golden Synapse Neurosciences Research Forum
- 2007 - Canadian Institutes of Health Research National Health Research Poster Competition: Silver poster award
- 2007 - Canadian Institutes of Health Research National Health Research Poster Competition: Travel Award
- 2007 - Eli Lilly/Canadian Association for Neuroscience Young Neuroscientist Travel Award
- 2008 - Best Presentation, Golden Synapse Neurosciences Research Forum
- 2008 - Colman Graduate Student Award, Memorial University
- 2009 - Best Presentation, Golden Synapse Neurosciences Research Forum
- 2009 - Society for Neuroscience Chapters Graduate Student Travel Award
- 2010 - Best Presentation, Golden Synapse Neurosciences Research Forum
- 2011 - Fellow of the School of Graduate Studies
- 2011 - PhD thesis distinction