Growing Up in Academia with Taufik Valiante
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Academia 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”.
Each event features an open conversation (interview) with a different faculty member, representing the broad spectrum of academic life. 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 universally inform the profession, but that too often remain unspoken. These events will be hosted and presented by Lucia Melloni (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics).
On Monday, September 20, 2021, 6 p.m. (CEST) / 12 noon (ET) Growing Up in Academia features Taufik Valiante, Director of the Surgical Epilepsy Program at the Krembil Neuroscience Center, Director of the Center for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application (CRANIA) and Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Toronto.
The online application for this event is Zoom Webinar. You can register for the event by using this link.
The Official CV
Taufik Valiante was graduated from the MD/PhD program at the University of Toronto in 1997, with doctoral studies completed under the supervision of Dr. Peter Carlen at Toronto Western Research Institute. He then pursued an epilepsy neurosurgery fellowship at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he learned George Ojemann's technique of language mapping for patient's undergoing epilepsy surgery.
Dr. Valiante is a Surgeon Scientist and Staff Neurosurgeon, specializing in Epilepsy Surgery, Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery, and Cranial Neurosurgery. He is interested in understanding the building blocks of the human brain (neurons) and the ultimate manifestation of their collective activity (from their oscillations to the complex phenomenon of cognition, depending on the scale of investigation). His collaborations with amazing scientists and students have enabled him to contribute not only to research on memory, eye movements, epilepsy, biophysical properties of neurons, computational modelling, mathematical modelling, and neuromodulation (electrical, music, optical), but also to the development of physical tools (optical, electrical) and brain machine interfaces. These multi-scale endeavors have no doubt all been ways to satisfy a personal desire to realize the title of the very formative book that first introduced him to the field of experimental neuroscience, TK’s, FromNeuron to Brain, a title he has adopted as the name of his laboratory.
- Director, Surgical Epilepsy Program, Toronto Western Hospital, University Health Network
- Staff Neurosurgeon (Epilepsy Surgery, Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery, and Cranial Neurosurgery), Toronto Western Hospital
- Associate Professor of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
- Associate Professor (cross appointment), Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Toronto
- Associate Professor (cross appointment), Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto
- Scientist, Krembil Research Institute
- Scientist, The KITE Research Institute at University Health Network
- Co-Director, The Max Planck-University of Toronto Centre (MPUTC) for Neural Science and Technology
- Co-Director, CRANIA (CenteR for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application)
- Director, CRANIA Neuromodulation Institute, University of Toronto
Lab Website : http://www.neurontobrainlaboratory.ca
Publications : View PubMed search of his recent publications
The Unofficial CV
Many people have told me that my career trajectory seems very structured and well thought-out, but it surely has not been—at least not as I have lived it. There is a wonderful quote from the famous Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, in which she describes what a story is: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” This is how I see my career trajectory too.
I don’t think I am at the “afterwards” point yet; and for most of my professional career I have felt, and at times still feel, like it’s “a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness.” In this storm there has been one guiding light, a lighthouse, so to speak, and that has been my deep attachment, since I was very young, to understanding the brain (whatever that means). I am not sure where this pursuit came from, but it had already solidified in my mind by the age of 16 or 17. It might have been my deep desire as a child to help others, particularly in light of an early childhood experience in which the son of one of my baseball coaches lost his life to epilepsy, an event I was acutely aware of while still playing baseball in my early teens.
I am lucky I grew up in Canada, for if the weather was nice all year round I would likely never have studied as hard as I did; but my Mom instilled in us a deep desire to “play” only after the work was done, and to work when the play was done. Sports and music both remain an integral part of my life today.
I always had a predilection for math and physics, but it was not until I took a zoology course in college that they came alive for me. Jack Dainty was a plant biophysicist who switched from the study of nuclear fission to that of biological membranes. Following a discussion after one of his lectures, he gave me one of his papers, for which he used mathematical and biological experiments to describe the physical existence of an unstirred layer of water alongside plant membranes. This paper was an epiphany for me—it literally blew my mind! And that epiphany defined and continues to define the term “computational” for me, a term that means using math and physics to demonstrate the existence of something in our physical reality. It was an encounter with knowledge that I am so grateful for.
Another key event in the formation of my scientific career happened on a seemingly ordinary day conducting experiments for my PhD. My findings at that time (if I recall correctly) were not and have never been earth-shattering; however, as I was washing my glassware, I realized that the data I had just acquired confirmed my previous experiments. The realization that I knew something that nobody else knew, and the fact that I had generated that knowledge myself, is as palpable today (even as recall this event) as it was in the moment. This realization feels like the gift of something incredibly precious—and it was indeed amongst the most precious things I owned at that age—it was a tiny bit of knowledge I had created.
Although I had always thought that being a doctor would be rewarding, one of the most unexpectedly rewarding activities during the early part of my career (the better part of a decade during which I was also a lobbyist) was championing the needs of the epilepsy community. I now encourage my students (clinical and basic science) to give back to the community they serve. I do not believe that “giving at the office” is enough, as I think that one then misses the huge positive energy that comes from volunteering and community service.
Through aggressive lobbying for increased services for individuals with epilepsy I was able to establish a large epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU) at the Toronto Western Hospital, which also laid the foundation for the standardization of epilepsy care across the province of Ontario. After this, I was ready to get back to navigating towards the light house. A key passage in a paper by the cognitive neuroscientist Victor Lamme steered me away from becoming a “boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids”—which in my case would have been the delusion of becoming an experimental psychologist—and toward the safe ground of a field I already knew, cellular electrophysiology.
Having been washed ashore to safe ground, and embarking anew towards the lighthouse, I was starting to feel like the waters had calmed and I was finally on my way. Little did I know, however, that a very, very dark storm that had been brewing for much of my life was on its way. This storm was the cumulative effects of my lived experience, and how I approached “life.” Suddenly, in what seemed like a flash, I found myself in a deep and dark depression, having sunk to bottom of the ocean together with the wreckage of my boat. It is in this chapter of my life that I learned the most about everything I thought I knew about life, and it is my greatest personal accomplishment—an achievement that towers over all the others and one that will never be published in the likes of Science or Nature. My slow surfacing from this ocean floor has been an experience both painful and wonderful, and one I share openly so that others might recognize, and know, their own coming storms.