This is an interview with our student Nazia Jassim on completing her PhD.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself…
Name: Nazia Jassim
Research group: Autism Research Centre
Co-supervisors: Professors John Suckling and Simon Baron-Cohen
Advisor: Dr Rebecca P Lawson (Psychology)
Title of your PhD: The neurocognitive mechanisms of perceptual inference in autism.
Can you give us a short background into what your PhD/MPhil was about?
Our brains are constantly evaluating sensory signals in our environments, which shapes how we experience the world and, ultimately, our physical and mental well-being. This process (sensory perception) is directly relevant to conditions such as autism, in which sensory-perceptual issues are a core feature. For my PhD, I used a combination of experimental psychology and brain imaging (MRI and MR Spectroscopy) to investigate the cognitive neuroscience behind visual perception and how this may be related to autistic people’s experiences in learning and decision-making.
How would you sum up your main findings?
My findings concluded that more research needs to be devoted to understanding sensory perception in autism as this forms such a crucial part of autistic people’s daily lives. Some specific findings:
- A meta-analysis of fMRI studies showed that autistic people, on average, recruited their visual cortex to a greater extent than non-autistic people (published here)
- A group comparison of autistic vs non-autistic people showed that the autistic group tended to show sensory “uncertainty” during specific conditions of perceptual decision-making tasks (published here)
- Preliminary MR spectroscopy findings showed a relationship between the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA and sensorimotor learning.
Although I confirmed some hypotheses about differential perception in autism, I still feel I left the PhD with more questions than answers!
What made you want to do a PhD?
I’ve loved biology for as long as I can remember and was drawn to neuroscience as a teen thanks to popular science books by neurologists VS Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks. I had vague aspirations of doing a PhD several years ago, but my unfocused research ideas and lack of opportunities in my home country kept me from making concrete plans. After studying zoology and working with rat brains for a couple of years, I realized I was more interested in the “human” side of research, specifically mental health. Once I found my “calling”, my motivations for applying for PhD’s were: wanting to spend a few years doing full-time research on a topic that motivated me, to have hands-on training in every step of conducting research, and of course, to tick “have a PhD” off the list of requirements to be an independent scientist someday. However, wanting to do a PhD and getting the chance to do one are two different things, and it took a combination of planning, perseverance, and a whole lot of rejection before I finally found a fully-funded position to study a research topic that truly intrigued me!
What was your best day during your PhD?
There were many little “wins”, but my “best day” was probably my final day of data collection in September 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, research around human participants (particularly those from a vulnerable population) was excruciatingly slow and nerve-wracking. I couldn’t be more relieved when it was finally time to shut myself away with my computer and crack on with that thesis.
What was your worst day during your PhD?
Like good days, there were many terrible, terrible days (#PandemicPhD), most of which had nothing to do with the PhD itself. The lead up to the thesis submission was pretty stressful as my old laptop decided it was time to check out. In general, I got through PhD setbacks by reminding myself that this was just a PhD, and as important as it was to me, it was not a life-and-death situation.
Do you have any words of advice to future PhD/MPhil students in Psychiatry?
Yes, loads! I’ll try to keep it brief.
- Think about your motivations for doing a PhD and what your priorities are (e.g., research project, lab culture, university, transferrable skills, etc).
- Seek out the right mentor(s) and lab. Most lab members are willing to chat about their experiences, so don’t shy away from sending polite, brief emails to them if needed.
- Continue to have interests and hobbies outside of the PhD.
- Sign up for a PhD just because you’re unsure what to do after graduating. There is no expiry date!
- Be daunted by statistics and programming! I could barely run a t-test or write a single line of code before I started my PhD, but look at me now – I’m the CEO of Twitter! Kidding, kidding.. My success story is more like finally feeling ”comfortable” with coding and discovering a new love for data analysis.
- Take the risk of self-funding (particularly if you’re an overseas student) with the hope you will find funding down the line. Weigh your funding options thoroughly before committing to a PhD.
- Try to “re-invent the wheel” (This was my supervisor’s advice throughout the PhD, and now it’s my turn to share it with others!)
What do you hope to do next?
This question is on top of the what-not-to-ask-a-recent-PhD-grad list. But luckily, I have an answer – I’m grateful for having recently received a one-year Parke-Davis postdoctoral fellowship to wrap up projects started during my PhD. Following post-doctoral training, I hope to apply for independent fellowships and research grants to continue long-term research in cognitive neuroscience and mental health.