Monday, April 15, 2013

Student Spotlight: Thomas Andrillon

Welcome to our fifth Student Spotlight interview! This one features Thomas Andrillon, a cognitive neuroscience Ph.D. student. It was conducted by Ting-An Lin, one of the student member on the 2012-2013 ASSC student committee. 

Ting-An Lin: Hi Thomas, thank you very much for being our interviewee this time! Could you give us a quick introduction about yourself?

Thomas Andrillon: I am a PhD candidate in cognitive neurosciences working under the supervision of Dr Sid Kouider (ENS, Paris, France) and Dr Giulio Tononi (UW, Madison, WI, USA). I graduated from the École Normale Supérieure (Paris, France) in Biology before pursuing my curriculum in Cognitive Sciences within the ENS Research Master in Cognitive Sciences (CogMaster). During my schooling years at the ENS, I had also the chance to get in contact with many different labs through internships. It permitted me to confirm my deep interest and specialization in the field of consciousness, which I considered at that time as the most enigmatic scientific mystery remaining. During these internships, I spent three semesters in Dr Tononi's Center for Sleep and Consciousness and one year in Dr Sid Kouider's Attention and Consciousness team.

Lin: What interesting books or papers you've been reading these weeks? Why did you like them?

Andrillon: I must confess that I am not the best example of the students always up-to-date with the  literature of their field. It is hard to continuously keep track of what is going on in science. However, most of the time, the important trends are hard to miss, even for me. For example, I have been really impressed by the profusion and quality of the recent publications of the researchers at Dönders University, in particular Dr Simon van Gaal and Dr Floris de Lange. In Paris, we have a new generation of young researchers such as Dr Valentin Wyart and Dr Vincent de Gardelle. Even if their main topic of interest are different than mine, the quality of their work is amazing. Nevertheless, I save some time for more casual readings. I am always dazzled to realize how rich and inspiring the intuition of a poet or a novelist can be for the scientific work. To this extent, the reading of Jose Luis Borges' “Everything and nothing” was a profound joy.

Lin: When and how did you initially become interested in consciousness? 

Andrillon: I cannot really remember when exactly started my interest in consciousness. Perhaps because I was curious of the topic for a long time without necessarily conceiving that one could study it scientifically. I guess it was a latent desire that one day became conscious. However, I remember hesitating, during my Bachelor Degree, between ecology and cognitive sciences as a topic of specialization. I chose cognitive sciences since they are dealing with what appeared to me as fundamental questions to understand human kind. Among them and firstly was the great enigma of consciousness. I felt deeply attracted by the humanist importance of the question as well as the feeling of facing a problem too big, too deep, too difficult. To paraphrase Dennett, there was a whole continent to explore, maybe the last one on Earth, and I wanted to have a part, even humble, in it.

Lin: You've been organized a Brain and Consciousness Seminar, what's that seminar about? Which lecture is your favorite one? Why?

Andrillon: The Brain and Consciousness Seminar is a seminar organized at the ENS by Dr Sid Kouider, Dr Catherine Tallon-Baudry and myself. Its purpose is to scout for what is new within the neurosciences of consciousness, for what is growing. To achieve this goal, we decided to invite young researchers from Europe and farther so that they can present their recent work and projects. It has, of course, to deal with consciousness from a neuroscientific and preferentially experimental perspective. But the idea is to keep an eye on the new tracks, even if not classic. In short, a good way to be up-to-date without reading too much!
It is hard for me to choose one lecture in particular. I was impressed by Dr Floris de Lange presentation, I was delighted by Simon van Gaal's enthusiastic approach or by Dr Hakwan Lau's work. Last time, we had the chance to receive Jakob Hohwy, a philosopher. For once, discussing more ideas and concepts rather than data and experiments was very stimulating, especially for students.

Lin: You have several opportunities to live and work abroad. I found that you've spent more than one year at University of Wisconsin at Madison under the direction of Dr. Giulio Tononi. What did you learn during that internship?

Andrillon: I went to Dr Giulio Tononi's lab twice. Once for my gap year and a second time for my master thesis. For me, living and working abroad, especially in the US, was a child dream. Regarding what I learned from it, I cannot be disappointed. Above all, it was my first experience, my first dive into the scientific community. Due to the peculiar situation of the lab, lost in Wisconsin but full of Europeans, there was a special atmosphere. We were sharing, between lab members, much more than the working hours. I had also the chance to work closely with Dr Yuval Nir, now in Israel, who taught me how to do research, with rigor and enthusiasm. And the importance of trust in scientific interactions. Besides, of course, I learned a lot through the discussions and meetings I had with Dr Tononi. Dr Tononi is a true humanist scientist and he taught me the importance of humanities in sciences, notably in neurosciences of consciousness. However, I also learned that research is sometimes a tough, demanding but not so rewarding job. A good thing to know before starting a PhD.

Lin: Could you recommend some papers or books for students who are interested in sleep and consciousness?

Andrillon: When I  left Madison after my first year there, Dr Tononi offered me the first version of the now published “Phi”, his last book. It is an unusual but beautiful work. You may be disappointed if you expect dry science with solely facts and figures. This book is full of reveries and artworks. But behind the fictional layer, the great themes of consciousness (and sleep) are magnificently depicted. In my mind, one of the greatest skills of Dr Tononi is the clarity of his reasoning. This book is a good example of it. I would highly recommend it. Another passionating book on sleep is the « Sleep and Dreams » from Michel Jouvet. A must read for the ones discovering the field.
In terms of paper, I must mention the review from Yuval Nir and Giulio Tononi “Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology” (TICS, 2010). Maybe the article I have read the most and each time with great pleasure. The references' section is a good starting point to wander in sleep and consciousness literature. Recently, Sid Kouider wrote an interesting article, alas only in French, on the perspectives of consciousness studies. It is related to the fascinating debate published in TICS between Sid Kouider and Ned Bloch on phenomenological and access consciousness
Finally, I would recommend reading Aristotle's essay “On Sleep and Dreams”. It is incredible how a man, about 2300 years ago, was able to formulate, with a rigorous method, the great scientific questions regarding the study of sleep and dreams. Sometimes, the one to admire is more the one raising the question rather than the one answering it.

Thomas Andrillon is a Ph.D. candidate at the École Normale Supérieure. His website is at

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