Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, ArtLab Foyer
Growing Up in Science with Leon Deouell
He was going to be a physician but a patient with brain damage changed his path...
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Science is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
At each event, we will have an open conversation (interview) with one faculty member representing science in its broad spectrum. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that are universal undercurrents of working in academia but that too often remain unspoken.
On monday, June 18th, the interview partner is Professor Leon Y. Deouell, Jack H. Skirball chair in brain research, Department of Psychology, Edmond and Lily Safra Center for brain research, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Leon Deouell, The Unofficial CV
Leon Deouell started his academic studies at the age of 23, after volunteering for a year of civil service working with kids in a poor community, which was followed by 4 years of mandatory service in the Israeli Defense forces. Coming out of this service, he didn't clearly know what to do, so he more or less defaulted to applying for medical school and law school (to satisfy your parents, a Jewish boy should be a doctor or a lawyer). Having been accepted to both, he went for medicine mainly because he didn't want to get into the shoes of his lawyer father (who is 10 cm taller). He did well in med school but found most of it numbing, with tons of material to memorize and very little room for creativity. Every year he wanted to quit but stayed, and in the meantime he put his energy to extra-curricular activities which included getting married and having a child and organizing peace rallies and demonstrations on campus calling on the government to start negotiating with the Palestinians (this was the days of the first Intifada).
He thought of being an ophthalmologist, but two coincidences determined what happened next. First, an epiphany came in his last year in med school when he was assigned (by lottery) to do a fellowship in the Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Nachum Soroker introduced him to the then (1990) nascent framework of cognitive neuropsychology. He read Ellis and Young's (1986) book of the same name from cover to cover, and Fodor's Modularity of Mind, and was utterly fascinated with the idea that cognition could be analyzed like this. When Soroker presented patients with Unilateral Neglect, who are unaware of half of the world, it blew his mind. The second incident has to do with him being a a compulsive reader who cannot skip written material. He thus couldn't avoid noticing a poster hanging a the entrance to the cafetria calling for applications to a new PhD program in computational neuroscience at the Hebrew University, one of the first of its kind in the world. One thing led to the other, and after finishing his MD residency, he started a PhD, studying auditory neglect using ERPs. The PhD work had ups and down (his wife quotes him saying at times that "it is not that the results are not what I expected, there are no results") and he continued to practice medicine to make a living (the scholarship situation was really bad at the time). He vacillated between medicine and science, dreaming to be a phsycian-scientist but realizing that the system in Israel does not allow it in practice. So when he finished his PhD dissertation (39 years old with two daughters), perhaps a dash intoxicated by pride of a paper that was accepted to Brain (which he saw as an empirical verification of Kant, no less), he chose the academy.
He went to UC Berkeley for 3 years with the family, and worked with Bob Knight (who became his life-long friend and mentor) and Mark D'Esposito, doing EEG, ECOG, and fMRI. His main post-doc project had to do with spatial hearing using fMRI, but the scanner was an experimental 4T scanner which was held together with masking-tape (the bed had to be manually pushed in by two people), and it made too much noise for auditory studies. So he learnt acoustics and spent most of his time crawling in the scanner and padding it. In the end, he did not publish the fMRI data he collected until 3 years after the end of his post-doc (it was in Neuron, so not too bad). Luckily, on his mentors' good advice, not all eggs were in the same basket, and he managed to get the position in the department of psychology in Jerusalem (maybe they thought it was good to have an MD in house as the faculty members were getting older…).
His first grant application failed ("too ambitious", "not focused") which was a disorienting experience. But he got some good advice from colleagues, and some psychotherapy to relieve the anxiety of the first pre-tenure years also helped, and he learned to enjoy it, despite some glorious failures. In 2012 he became the head of his department for 3 years, a job he did not really like, but managed to survive without making too much damage. At the same time he headed the formation of the brain imaging center, which he liked much better.
The topics he studies are quite diverse. His main question revolves around the neuroscience of conscious awareness (and lack thereof), a topic he finds fascinating since his first meeting with patients with neglect, and he enjoys flirting with philosophy, but on the day to day life his work keeps diverging from the main theme either because of curiosity (euphemism for distractability), or because of nagging doubts. Doubts and skepticism about the methods and dogmas send him into long, tortuous, and surprising paths, sometimes cutting the branches he was sitting on, and sometimes getting into small scientific skirmishes (which surprisingly is a great way to make friends). He is not sure it is a recommended path (probably better to be focused), but he cannot help it. He managed to publish some papers in respectable outlets but also got his share of rejections and frustrating reviews ("this paper is a waste of time" is probably top). He really loves teaching (in class and one-to-one), but he is still stressed before every class (and talk), retouching his slides up to the very last minute even for time-warn courses. He is still worried that he is not cut for being a PI, as being one means running a small business, and managing is not his forté, but otherwise he thinks being a scientist is the most amazing profession, with the endless liberty it gives, and with the opportunity to interact globally and become friends with the smartest people. He is most grateful for having a wonderful family, and for having had 3 great mentors (Soroker, Bentin and Knight), supportive and inspiring colleagues, and mostly for his great luck of working and being constantly challenged by bright, curious, creative students, which he absolutely admires.