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Brain Awareness Week

Lise Loumé - 10/03/2014

Gaël Varoquaux: from quantum physics to brain imaging

© Inria / CEA, Neurospin

Gaël Varoquaux, a brain image analysis researcher on the Parietal team, takes a look back at his career path and scientific studies for Brain Awareness Week, which will take place 10-16 March 2014.

Right from the start, it seemed Gaël Varoquaux was destined to become a physicist. Ever since he was a young child, Mr. Varoquaux's father, a researcher in quantum physics, often took his son to his laboratory. There, he was amazed by the "complicated machines and the curves that appeared on the oscilloscopes. From then on" , he continues, "I dreamed about becoming a physicist" . It seemed like his path was laid out.

A globe-trotting student

In 2004, with a DEA (a French post-graduate diploma taken before completing a PhD) in quantum physics, he began work on a thesis in atomic optics, a field that explores the link between the behaviour of light and atoms. "I discovered this exciting field of research while doing an internship at the University of Otago in New Zealand" , he remembers. "As soon as I learned about this subject, I wanted to do my thesis on it" .
He completed his thesis at the Institut d’Optique Graduate School, located in the Greater Paris region, under the direction of Alain Aspect, a renowned physicist who performed the first conclusive experiment on the Einstein-Podolosy-Rosen paradox, one of the fundamental paradoxes of quantum mechanics. He then completed his post-doc in Florence. "Despite what you might think, atomic optics is more of an experimental than theoretical discipline. In terms of applications, I thought about using tools that measure gravity to test the theory of relativity" , he explains.

Blazing new trails

So how did a physicist with a passion for quantum theory become interested in brain image analysis? "As I was doing my thesis, I realised I was more interested in data processing and programming and understanding how a given mechanism works than physics itself" , says Gaël Varoquaux. "I wanted to study more open models, like the brain" .
In 2008, he contacted the Parietal team, which works at the French atomic energy commission's (CEA) Neurospin platform in Saclay, and was recruited as a postdoctoral fellow. His research focused on brain image analysis. "My interest in data processing and my programming skills, which I gained while doing my experimental thesis, worked to my advantage when I was applying" , he explains. "However, I had to work hard to quickly get up to speed in statistics and neuroscience" .
Still interested in brain image processing, he even did a third post-doc with Neurospin. This time, however, it was with a team at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM). This career choice allowed him to focus more on clinical applications. In 2011, he was given tenure at Neurospin. "I was lucky to have been recruited so quickly" , he admits.

I wanted to study more open models, like the brain.

The NiConnect Project

Gaël Varoquaux was soon assigned a major call for projects for the Parietal team financed by the "Investments for the future" programme. "This project, known as NiConnect, is largely based on functional connectivity, or the study of how the various regions of the brain interact with each other. I worked on this topic quite a bit during my post-docs" , he explains. Because this principle does not require an external stimulus, it could be used as a tool to diagnose patients who are unable to cooperate, such as a patient who is in a coma.
The project was accepted in 2012. Since then, Gaël Varoquaux has continued to work at Neurospin while pursuing an area that is very important to him, namely helping researchers in cognitive science to better understand how the brain works by providing them with tools and computer models based on MRI scans that measure brain activity. "The difference between my goals and those of researchers in cognitive science is the same as between a mechanic and a Formula 1 driver. The former has to make the engine work, while the latter has to win the race!" he concludes.

Keywords: Parietal team Inria Saclay - Île-de-France Gaël Varoquaux Portrait Brain image analysis