Past the bench: A dialog with Mayada Elsabbagh | Spectrum
Associate professor, McGill University
A laboratory is a bit like a kitchen, simmering a variety of “dishes” at the same time, says Mayada Elsabbagh, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. New students may feel lost in the hustle and bustle of the activity, but Elsabbagh encourages them to dive in and contribute – especially with their own ideas.
Elsabbagh draws on this collective wisdom to keep her laboratory boiling. For example, a committee made up of lab members from all career levels reads every application to a graduate school before deciding who nods.
During the pandemic, their lab members came together in other ways as well, guiding each other through yoga and meditation workshops, quiz nights, and a virtual drop-in get-together called “cookie time”. Team building helps with their mission: figuring out how early social experiences and other environmental factors can protect against autism and related diseases.
Elsabbagh told Spectrum about her “neurotic planning” (and limitations), why she’s not on social media, and the secret of Inbox Zero.
spectrum: What big question drives your research?
Mayada Elsabbagh: My research focuses on understanding factors that influence early brain development, such as genetic factors, which are rare in the general population. I am particularly fascinated by the idea of resilience and the possibility that the brain essentially adjusts its own development to respond to adversity.
In my sabbatical next year we plan to explore the interface between disability and refugee status. This affects people who have experienced trauma and may show signs of disability. We plan to follow up on some of these traumatic experiences to see how much biological factors contributed to their development.
S: Whose work do you admire?
ME: The person who initially interested me in the field was my late supervisor Annette Karmiloff-Smith. She is well known for her work on developmental pathways, and she was actually the person who changed my career path towards an appreciation of topics related to development. That led to where I researched today.
S: What does a typical day look like for you?
ME: Predictability is the only thing I don’t have on my schedule. I experience a constant feeling of chaos. It’s like cooking: there are many dishes being prepared at the same time and you are trying to switch between different ways of working, whether it be the deep thinking involved in writing and reviewing papers or the collaborative process of developing study protocols. And out of this chaos, I try to impose strategies to create order and get some meaningful things done every day.
S: What kind of strategies are these?
ME: Neurotic scheduling that I’m changing at the last minute anyway. During the pandemic, I went from maintaining lots of to-do lists to keeping a list on a single page. This allows me to manage topics related to my work, my family and my health at a glance.
I also surround myself with extremely organized, talented and reliable people and I know that I can trust my team to do the things that I miss and that they can do much better, be it in administration, science or dealing with families.
Another strategy that has worked very well for me is letting go of things that realistically won’t happen and managing my guilt for failing something. And really trying to end each day feeling like at least one thing I did made sense, and that is what I wanted to be when I grew up.
S: How much sleep do you get?
ME: I absolutely appreciate my eight hours of sleep, without which I won’t have a productive day. There is also a morning coffee ritual, without which the day doesn’t look very promising.
S: When and where are you most productive?
ME: I love working in cafes. This is not unusual in Montreal. My house is in an area full of nature. This is my second favorite place, except that the house fills up with people in the summer – family members come and stay with me – so no work gets done. Instead, there is a lot of cooking in the summer and a lot of just hanging out. There is a lot of doing nothing in this house too.
S: Do you hear anything while working?
ME: I like white noise, like what you get in a coffee shop.
S: What is your favorite scientific conference?
ME: Is it too controversial to say that I don’t love conferences? I find conferences, especially the large ones, increasingly overwhelming and somewhat disappointing. When I go to a conference, I want to learn something new, meet new and interesting people, think differently about a topic or get inspiration. And I find that larger conferences tend not to deliver those things. Recently I’ve started thinking about conferences as places where I meet with people I don’t see very often to make sure I have a minimalist list of the type of science I want to keep up to date with, Have fun usually the kind I don’t do myself.
S: Do you have good memories of the conference?
ME: At a workshop in Italy we were served espressos in the morning and freshly cooked risotto at lunchtime. I always thought, “Why can’t we do this all the time?”
S: What are you reading right now?
ME: It’s kind of hard for the heart, because I don’t read at leisure anymore. The pandemic has blurred that line between work and life. While working at home this summer, I found that as much as I had concentrated time, I was doing work. Before the pandemic, I tried to catch up on Michael Rutter’s older writings in which he defined concepts of resilience in relation to exposure to adverse events. It’s not always the easiest to read, but his papers certainly offer plenty to think about.
S: Which journals or magazines do you subscribe to?
ME: I don’t have any favorite magazines. I’m looking for good papers, regardless of the magazine. I am very skeptical of the things that are published in influential magazines. In my experience, it is not the quality of the work that determines whether and where it is published, but rather the connections of a scientist within the subject area and the ability to package the work.
S: Are you active on social media?
ME: Not much. I’ve never shied away from controversial topics, but I find involvement in social media problematic. It only allows simple and superficial positions. I’m on Twitter and it was fine, except that I don’t get involved in debates because I have a hard time narrowing my thoughts and choosing a position without justifying the space. I would also be rather picky about what I look at and read. On the other hand, I admire the power of social media and what it can do when used for positive causes.
S: What do you eat or drink while you work?
ME: My morning coffee, that’s the ritual I mentioned. And then, in the afternoon, I try to remember to drink lots of sparkling water, but it doesn’t always happen.
S: Does your laboratory have traditions?
ME: My team has a spontaneous ability to organize itself and take initiative. We have something like “cookie time,” a weekly virtual session where people just hang out, chat and have a cookie. In the summer we also had a few personal picnics on Mount Royal.
S: How many unread emails do you have in your inbox right now?
ME: I am proud to be a person with no inbox. I’m looking now and I’m at 29. But that’s because I’ve been in meetings all morning.
S: What’s your secret?
ME: I think it was Geri Dawson who got me excited about the Inbox Zero method – if the answer takes less than two minutes, do it. If it’s something to think about, plan it out and put it in a place where you can find it. I also feel good about deleting email in a way I wasn’t before.
S: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
ME: Many of us go to science because we want to have an impact on the world; we want to change the world. You can’t just dream about it. It is important to learn to find and use opportunities for this in daily work. That may sound idealistic, but it is actually a very strategic approach to research – and it has led to enormous successes for me and my team.