From mentee to mentor: a conversation with two QBIN awardees, Louis Collins and Hassan Rivaz

During the 2022 QBIN Scientific Day in Sherbrooke on June 2nd, three exceptional keynote lectures were given by this year’s William Feindel lecturer, Professor Louis Collins, and the two recipients of the 2022 Rising Star in Bio-Imaging in Quebec award, Professors Sylvia Villeneuve and Hassan Rivaz. In order to learn more about their career paths, research, and interests, the QBIN blog team conducted interviews with each of the award recipients. Check out the interview with Sylvia Villeneuve, and continue reading for a joint interview with Louis Collins and his former postdoctoral fellow, Hassan Rivaz. This interview was conducted by QBIN co-director, Christine Tardif, and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Louis Collins is a professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Neurology & Neurosurgery, associate member in the departments of Computer Science and Medical Physics and associate member of the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, and the Center for Intelligent Machines at McGill and world-renowned expert in image processing for quantitative analysis of medical images. He heads the Neuro Imaging and Surgical Technologies (NIST) laboratory at the Brain Imaging Center of the Montreal Neurological Institute

Hassan Rivaz earned his PhD (2011) from Johns Hopkins University and completed an NSERC post-doctoral fellowship at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) before joining Concordia University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as well as the PERFORM Centre as an Assistant Professor, in 2014. He holds the Concordia University Research Chair in Medical Image Analysis and is the Director of the IMPACT Lab: Image Processing And Characterization of Tissue.

Christine: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in research and what inspired you to make that decision?

Louis: So for me there was never a decision to do a career in research, it happened by default. I had a company with my father, we went bankrupt, and the only way that I could escape the company and still maintain the respect of my father, who had done his own PhD, was to go back to school. And so I went back and did my master’s degree. I was doing something in electrical engineering, I was never being paid, my supervisor wasn’t all that cool, and then I ran into Bruce Pike at Steven Zucker’s computer vision class. Bruce said, “Why don’t you come up the hill to the Neuro and talk to Terry Peters, he’s looking for somebody who can code”. And so my career is completely due to some fortuitous meeting with Bruce Pike in the back of the class where he and I were making jokes about the class. So there was never any decision, it was just blown by the wind in this general direction.

Hassan: For me, when I look back, I think I was built to do research. Even when I was in first grade, like seven years old, I had a notebook of inventions, and then my older brother found it and made fun of me forever. That aside, I think I wasn’t mature enough until I started my PhD to seriously think about an academic versus industrial career. My PhD supervisors, Greg Hagar and Gabor Fichtinger, and also Emad Boctor, were really great supervisors. So it was during my PhD that I realized that I really wanted to become a professor.

Christine: I’m sure your kids would have loved to see that book of inventions! Okay, so that’s how things got started. Can you describe your career trajectories a bit? Were there any tipping points or transformative moments?

Louis: When I came back from my postdoc in France, I was working for Alan [Evans] as a research associate and I was quite happy – no responsibilities, playing around in the lab doing some fun stuff, and Terry Peters left the MNI and went to Western and there was now this position available. And so they announced the position, solicited the CVs. So they got a whole slew of CVs, but Richard Murphy, who was director of the institute at the time, was not impressed with any of the CVs they received. And so, talking to Alan and a few others he said “You must know some people that could apply for this job. Why haven’t any of your postdocs applied, what’s going on?”. And so Alex Zijdenbos and I were asked by Alan to submit our CVs for this position. And neither one of us were really too keen, so Alex and I went out to lunch and he said “Well I’m not going to compete with you for it, so do you want it?” and I said “No I don’t want it, do you want it?”, “No I don’t want it”. So I can’t remember if we drew straws or flipped a coin or something like that, but I submitted my CV for the position. So that again is a blowing in the wind pivot point to becoming a prof. But this is a reflection of what life was 25-something years ago and how difficult it is now… The field has changed.

Christine: What excites you the most about your current research?

Louis: It’s been the same excitement for the last 20-odd years – working with brilliant students and postdocs. Again I’ll come back to Bruce Pike – he’s always had this saying that you come up with some wacky idea and give it to a student who’s brilliant who’s going to take it forward, and all you have to do is hang on for the ride. It is amazing to see the students go forward. The interactions with students keeps me on my toes because all my students are brighter than I am, and if I want to stay abreast without looking too much like an idiot, I really have to study, read, pay attention, and follow them on. And I’m lucky because I still have some insight – and I guess it’s based on experience – to be able to help the students forward in the right direction when they come up with three or four ideas and I can tell, in advance, that no that one is just not going to be worth it don’t waste your time there, but these other two, those are cool! Go play with that. 

Hassan: So Louis said it very well. It’s the same for me, I have been very lucky with amazing students, so they always keep me on my toes and I always have to learn. Also, ultrasound gets me excited. It’s been treated for a long time as a black box. People really didn’t know what’s going on behind the scenes and now it’s opening up and we have a lot of compute power so basically the potential to use all of that discarded data, that’s the other thing that excites me.

Christine: Now looking forward, what advances do you see in your field in the future? What will your lab be doing in 20 years time?

Hassan: That’s a tough one… Like I said, because ultrasound has really opened up, now we have access to the information that was very closely guarded 10 years ago. That plus the fact that we have a hundred times more compute power. So if we look at, for example, the things that smartphones can do right now, they have replaced SLR cameras, right? So I think 20 years from now, we will have really small ultrasound probes that do what huge cart-based ultrasound probes do with similar image quality. So that opens up the potential to use ultrasound in many new areas. So that’s what excites me.

Louis: Yes, ultrasound will be like a stethoscope – every MD will no longer have a stethoscope around their neck, they’re going to have a portable ultrasound device, which will be about the same size as the current stethoscope and the same weight.

Hassan: Yes, exactly.

Christine: That would definitely improve access to imaging across the globe!

Hassan: You know people are trying to make ultrasound pills, so you swallow this pill and around it is full of ultrasound arrays, so it basically takes images of your GI tract. It’s wireless, battery operated, it’s really cool. So imagine doing that, instead of colonoscopy, right?

Christine: That is the first time I hear that – that is awesome! Your turn, Louis – what will your lab be doing in 20 years?

Louis: Well I don’t know what my lab will be doing, but I’ll be retired!

Christine: Haha ok, what will your lab alumni be doing in 20 years?

Louis: Well they will be doing great and that’s a good part of my talk, but I think that the big thing that will happen over the next 20 years is going to be the integration of big data. From multiple sources. So there will be lots of organized data from big studies, like the UK biobank. There’ll be other studies that will be hopefully equally as big, but much more varied in terms of the data of having data from wearables of hundreds of thousands of people wearing a smartwatch that is recording physiological signals continuously on a daily basis. This data will be available for people to be able to track health over time, and possibly even predict declining health well in advance, so you could actually do something about it in terms of a preventive mechanism, as opposed to a treating mechanism. I’m kind of hoping that prevention is going to cost a lot less than treatment.

Christine: Who are your mentors and what do you value most about your relationship with them?

Louis: Good question. So my mentors would be my previous supervisors – Terry Peters and Alan Evans, although they were much more active in the mentorship early in my career… From the beginning of my career and even until now, Bruce Pike was definitely a great mentor and continues to be, to this day.

Another is actually Richard Murphy, who passed away recently, was actually a great mentor when I first started because he was one of the first people to actually read one of my CIHR grants and laugh out loud in his comments to me. He taught me how to write grants and how to write many grants, so that you distribute your funding sources as much as possible.

Hassan: Yeah so my first mentor was my first grade teacher in Iran. She was a great mentor, I still remember her, you know… So it started from then, all the way to graduate school, masters with Rob Rohling, and then PhD with Greg Hager and Gabor Fichtinger and Emad Boctor, and then postdoc with Louis. I learned a lot from each one of them, so I think I was very fortunate to work with different people who had different strengths, so I learned from each one of them, you know. So many, great mentors!

Christine: And do you still have mentors at this advanced stage of your career?

Hassan: At Concordia, Habib [Benali] is really great, you know, he’s really helping me and the overall direction of the BME research. But basically when I read or write papers, I remember the comments that I received from my masters, PhD, and postdoc supervisors, so those are lasting mentorships.

Christine: Continuing on that thought, what type of mentor are you?

Hassan: Oh, I think not a very good one… So I would say six months after I became a prof facing all the new responsibilities, I realized I had the best mentors, you know I never knew how great they were before. So I don’t think I’m a good one…

Christine: Oh I’m sure your students would disagree!

Hassan: I hope so, but I think they’re better than me when I was a student!

Louis: I try to be as supportive and as enabling as possible as a mentor and so for the students – I mean all the students we have are great and they’re going to do well –  but they can do exceptionally well if you give them the opportunity. So I try to give them tons of feedback, positive feedback. Even when things are terrible, I always try to give positive feedback – there’s always something good, even with an extremely rough first draft. So I try to be incredibly supportive and make an environment that works for all the students, so that they can all work together and work on their own projects. I also try to have enough funding to be able to support students. If they have a good idea, I want to be able to say yes based on the quality of the idea, not based on how much money I have in the bank. I’ve been very lucky with that – almost always having sufficient funds to be able to do that.

Now on top of the mentorship role for the students I play a mentorship role for junior faculty. Trying to help out junior faculty to get through the maze that is McGill. Because not everything is written down and there’s a lot of things that are kind of understood, but only understood once you’ve gone through it. And before going through it, everything is incredibly opaque, and so I try to remember what I didn’t know back in the day and then try to share that with the people that are facing that same opaqueness now. I try to help them get forward so they can make it through to their tenure track passage.

Christine: What advice would you give to one of your students who wants to become a professor?

Louis: So for all my students, every six months or so we have the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” talk. So that from each point in their academic career, we can make sure that what they’re doing is bringing them closer to their goal of what they want to do. For those that want to be in an academic position, I try to make sure that they build up their CV, that they publish papers, that they go to conferences, they build their network, and they’re doing all that so they can become a prof. And they see me as a prof, and they also noticed that I have a lot of white hair, but they also see that early in my career I worked a lot, but now I really try to make it nine to five or eight to five and I really don’t work weekends unless there’s a grant deadline. I’m not living to work, I’m working to live, and I’m trying to instill that in the students – that you can organize yourselves to work well and you don’t have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you can succeed with that… But it is incredibly competitive, and maybe the advice that I’m giving students now was good 20 years ago and maybe they need to work a bit harder now, but I don’t know! The students that I’ve had, many of them have succeeded. Out of the 50-odd that I’ve trained, I think 20-something are profs now so something’s going well…

Hassan: The first thing is that I want to make sure this is really what they want to do. So I tell them that there is the option of industry as well, and that that’s also interesting work. And if I see that being a Prof is what they really want, like Louis, I try to help them as much as possible. I try to give them projects that are up and coming so they work in an area that is going to be hot after they do their postdoc and publish good papers. So yeah I try to help them as much as possible, and I also tell them that it’s very difficult. So I tell them that they have to really work very very hard, but if they are willing to put in the work then it’s definitely possible, so they have to keep trying.

Christine: How do you approach failure in science and what is your action plan after a failure?

Hassan: Oh, so I do get very sad… But you know, honestly I think failures, for me, have been more constructive than successes, because I’m the type of person that when I fail, I work harder. When I succeed, I enjoy it a little bit, which is probably not the best. So I say, bring it on! It’s not that I enjoy failures, but I do work harder and then the sadness of failure disappears!

Louis: I see there are multiple types of failures and the attitude and responses are a bit different for each one. 

So let’s say for grants – grants are a bit of a crapshoot, a roll of the dice. There are lots of good grants, but there’s not enough money to pay for all the good grants, and so if you’re absolutely exceptional you’ll probably get funding, but most people are not absolutely exceptional, they’re just really really good and definitely fundable. And there it’s just luck of the draw who gets the grant or not to review. You’re either on the good side of the funding threshold or not. You really have to see it like that and you should not see it as a critique of the things that you want to do. You have to maintain a positive attitude and just keep trying again and eventually you’ll get funded.

Then there’s the paper submissions where you’re sending a paper and it gets rejected over and over and over again. Those are a bit harder because that’s actually work that students have been putting in and you’ve been guiding them and apparently your guidance didn’t lead to a successful acceptance of the publication. And sometimes even when you get decent reviews, you get a rejection of the paper. So there again, some of it is just the lottery of the review process, who actually reviews the paper. Most of the time the reviews are actually good and people take the time to review papers and the comments are good, and if they have misinterpreted something, it’s probably because you wrote something that could be misinterpreted. So we just have to read the paper over and over again, have it read by colleagues, and get it written such that it makes sense and that it’s understandable, the way that you want to be understood.

And then there’s sometimes failure on the student side and in my experience I’ve seen two sources of failure on the student side. There’s one where the students themselves are just not in the right place. They’re not built for grad school, they’re not built for independent work and you need to leave breadcrumbs very closely spaced so they can move forward. They’re not going to succeed in academia, and it’s better to realize that as soon as possible and have the tough talk with the student to make that clear, usually with a big box of Kleenex on the desk. Most students in that position need tough love. And many of them come back and say that they did appreciate it because there’s no point in wasting five years of somebody’s life and then having them fail out of the PhD – that’s terrible.

And then there’s the opposite problem, which is “You know that great idea that I had at one point? Yeah, it wasn’t so good.” and a student has worked on it for like a year and in the end the actual data that comes out is not that great. So in one sense I’d say it’s a pity, but on the other hand, at least I learned, and the student learned, that that’s not the way to go. So at least, we know that in the search space of the problems that we’re working on, the solution is not there, it’s going to be elsewhere. And we try to take a positive twist on that and readjust the project so they can move forward well.

So failure is definitely a part of academia and you have to deal with it with a method that doesn’t make you depressed – I think that’s the take home message.

Christine: Good, sounds like you guys are pretty resilient! Did you learn anything about yourself or how you conduct your research during the pandemic? Has it changed how you’re going to run your lab from now on?

Louis: We were very lucky in terms of the work that we do that we don’t depend on acquiring new data. For all except for one project, all my students could work on existing databases of data that has been acquired at great expense and energy by others. So I really appreciate all the work of the data acquisition people. So because of that, we were able to continue the analysis of data, and what I learned is that  the students are spectacularly resilient. And they can work very well on their own doing the analysis, working forward, and I’ve just been completely dumbfounded by the amount of progress that’s been made, even though we’ve been in a pandemic. But at the same time, I did stack the dice in my favor in that I met with every student every week, sometimes twice a week throughout the entire time. And we met in groups at least once a week as well  – one group that does neurological analysis and one group that does the neurosurgery stuff – and then once a week with everybody together for kind of a social for the entire two years of the confinement, and that helped keep everybody sane.

Hassan: A good portion of our research was experimental, so we had to work with ultrasound machines to collect the data, and at the beginning it was very tough because we were completely locked out, you know. So we basically learned to work with other data, data public databases, and my mentors at Hopkins were also nice to let me use data I collected there, and we also bought these portable probes that we bring home so we can do experiments at home now, so that actually did change. So yeah we rely more on portable devices now.

Christine: You are at different phases of your life and careers, so I expect your answers will be a bit different: how do you manage to find balance between your work and your personal life?

Hassan: Yeah it’s very tough, I’m still learning – I don’t know how to do that. I try to prioritize right. There’s this rule 80-20 you know, like you spend 80% of your time on what is actually 20% important, so I really try to see what is really important. And because I have two small kids, I have to make the balance, otherwise I can’t survive. So I’m still learning and it’s hard.

Louis: Well that’s the thing, it is really hard to maintain the balance. Like I said before, you don’t have to work 24 hours a day, but you’re definitely tempted to do so at the beginning of your career. There is lots of competition and there’s lots to be done. I think one has to focus. And this is do as I say, not as I do, because I have difficulty saying no to any project, and I said yes to way too many projects, so I’m spread very thin, but I enjoy them all – it’s just way too much fun to do tons of projects. But, at the beginning of my career, with young kids, family, my wife had a big job, so we had to make time. We had to do stuff to make it work and just couldn’t. And at the same time, I didn’t want to work evenings and weekends, I wanted to be with the family, so that’s what I did. After I got tenure, I must say it was a lot easier. I think there was a certain level of stress that kind of dropped down, where I could focus on some things and do them very well and just move forward with that. And for the last 5 or 10 years that has worked out reasonably well where I don’t work evenings, I don’t work weekends, but when I’m at work, I’m working.

Hassan: So Louis, when your kids were small, do you think you worked too much or you wish you worked less?

Louis: Well… I wish I would have worked less. But for the first 10 years of their lives, we both, my wife and I, worked incredibly hard. We both had the advantage of having flexible schedules, mine more than hers, but essentially, we would drive in together, I’d drop her off at work, I would go to McGill, and we could drive back to pick up the kids. We were really lucky when the kids were really young because my aunt could pick up the kids from daycare and then we would pick them up from my aunt’s. That made our lives possible. Had that not been the case, I think we would not have been able to succeed the way that we did. 

Christine: It takes a village to raise kids, I think the network there is really important. I have one last question: Could you share something that most people don’t know about you?

Louis: I don’t know, I’m a pretty big open book, so people know that I like to eat and people know that I like to play on cars and that’s pretty much that and work, so that’s it. Actually, like when Hassan was seven years old writing books of inventions, when I was maybe eight or nine years old, I was taking apart lawn-mower engines and putting them back together on a go-kart so I could drive myself around on little homemade go- karts. And then when I was 20, actually as I was doing my master’s degree, I had seven cars – they were all old beaters – that I would fix up and then I would sell one car every three months to pay for my degree. So maybe people don’t know that.

Hassan: I’m happy Louis answered first so I had some time to think about it. But still, I don’t know, my answer is something uncool… I basically watch YouTube videos. You know between 9 and 9:30 or 9:45 in the evening, I’m basically on YouTube watching geeky videos and surprisingly I have learned a lot from that! And another maybe cooler thing is that I have been keeping track of my push ups for 17 years, and I have been doing more than 200 per week. 

Christine: Love it! Okay, so these quickfire questions are meant to be one-word answers.

Open data or acquire data?

Hassan: Open data.

Louis: Open data.

Introvert or extrovert?

Hassan: Introvert.

Louis: Introvert.

Summer or winter?

Hassan: Summer.

Louis: Both.

Rock or classical music?

Hassan: Rock.

Louis: Rock.

Coffee or tea?

Hassan: Coffee.

Louis: Coffee in the morning; tea for the rest of the day.

Montreal bagels or poutine?

Hassan: Oooh, bagels?

Louis: Both, definitely. Even both during the same meal!

Click here to watch recordings of the keynote lectures at the QBIN Scientific Day in Sherbrooke on June 2nd, 2022.

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