MNS portrait #1 – Radwa Khalil, neurobiology of creativity

Radwa is waiting for us in the lobby of Radisson Blu hotel in St. Julian’s, Malta. She is attending the 6th MNS Conference (Malta, 2017), ready to embark into her PhD in Bremen, Germany.

“I am optimist and I feel that my new lab will be the right environment for me, where I will be finally allowed being autonomous and creative”, Radwa tells us. This is very appropriate, given that her exciting PhD topic will be about the neurobiology of creativity.

Who are you, where are you from? Which education path did you follow?

“I am optimist and I feel that my new lab will be the right environment for me, where I will be finally allowed being autonomous and creative”, Radwa tells us.
I am an Egyptian, born in Cairo but, lived half of my life in Alexandria, Egypt.
In 2008, I obtained a B.Sc. in Zoology and a pre-M.Sc. degree in Comparative Anatomy, Embryology and Developmental Biology at Alexandria University. In the meanwhile, I was teaching practical courses related to zoology for bachelor students. However, I was not happy, I felt that I was not enjoying what I was doing. I was very young (21 years old) when I got this job at the university, and in my country such low-level teaching appointments are already considered prestigious. But I was not satisfied, possibly due to the work being mostly routine, to the poor scientific facilities, to the lack of teamwork. So many factors in fact…

I discovered Neuroscience, by attending the 3rd MNS Mediterranean Neuroscience conference in the lecture halls of Alexandria library.
December 2010 was a turn point in my life, when I discovered Neuroscience, by attending the 3rd MNS Mediterranean Neuroscience conference in the lecture halls of Alexandria library. Attending this event drove my motivation and made me understand what I really wanted to do. After this conference, which allowed me to meet important researchers in neuroscience from all over the world –such as Ben-Ari, Gustavo Deco, Hagai Bergman and others– I started to get more knowledge about this interesting field (which was new for me).

I then approached Marie Moftah –associate professor at Alexandria University and the conference local organizer– and inquired about the possibility of switching my training toward Neuroscience. She provided me immediately with an opportunity to start as a training-through-research internship in Computational Neuroscience within the N€uromed EU Project into which two Egyptian universities, Alexandria University and Assiut University, were involved. I learned only afterwards that a vital contribution to N€uromed was coming from the Mediterranean Neuroscience Society, precisely initiated in December 2009 by this EU consortium members!

The topic of the internship was about “Studying Neuronal and Cognitive Dysfunction in Epileptic Patients using a Combined Experimental-Computational Methodology”. To get the required skills, I attended the INCF-sponsored school ACCN in 2011. Always through MNS and N€uromed, I could have an extended stay of two months at the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases (IMN, Bordeaux University, Bordeaux, France), in the lab of Thomas Boraud, which further improved my training. I was ready at this point to complete my transition to neuroscience! And I managed to enroll (and get) a master degree in integrative neuroscience at the Center of Behavioral Brain Sciences in Magdeburg (Germany).

What is your topic of your current research and what do you like about it?

Currently, I started a PhD in Bremen University under the supervision of Professor Ben Godde. My PhD project focuses on the neurobiology of creativity. What I like most is that creativity is central in our life, it is what permeates our scientist and personal daily life! I am really excited to better understand what are the factors that enhance the creativity among individuals? And if there is a difference between different creativity levels, in terms of neural correlates.

Creativity emerge from the interplay of several neuro-biological/cognitive processes, the study of which could help refining psychological and neuro-economical theories explaining human behavior. In this study, I will use all the computational and theoretical experiences that I acquired before (during my previous research activities). Additionally, I will combine these techniques with novel ones (i.e., human EEG, fMRI and TMS) that I will acquire from my work at Jacobs university.

Was it difficult to get where you are? Any obstacle you met? How did you overcome these obstacles?

Definitely, It was very difficult especially because I am girl from a male dominated society. In Egyptian society, girls and women are allowed to do ordinary works but not the extraordinary ones. In Egyptian society, girls and women are allowed to do ordinary works but not the extraordinary ones. Sure, there were other obstacles but, this one was a major one, which somehow and indirectly enforced me to make a choice between keeping my mini-job in an Egyptian university or going abroad to pursue my research training and career.

For me, the decision was not an easy one, but I was so lucky enough to have very special parents who supported me and accepted that I follow my driving passion.
Therefore, I left my teaching position in the Egyptian university and restarted from the scratch in the field of neuroscience. A consequence was that I could not validate my Egyptian master. It was a big pain, but I decided to go on with my choice and, at the end, I managed to successfully develop a new training and research agenda.

Do you want to thank someone or something for helping you arriving where you are?

Yes, there were so many people I remember as rainbows through my clouds (I had so many clouds). My parents are the first and, then, the mentor who opened for me the way to neuroscience, Marie Moftah. I would also like to thank Marc Landry and Driss Boussaoud, who helped me, as well as other Egyptian students, to go abroad for scientific exchange via MNS stipends. So many others supported me and I do know want to forget any of them! For instance, Andre Granne and Thomas Boraud in Bordeaux who encouraged and trusted me.

What are your future plans or hopes? Would you like going back to your home country or not and why?

I would prefer supporting my country from abroad through scientific collaboration, helping to unshadow the many talents existing in my country.
In the immediate future, I want to pursue my PhD on the theme of creativity and I hope one day to be able to autonomously direct a team and give my students the great guidance I once received from the wonderful people who supported me.

No, I don’t want to go back to my country, only for short visits. Do I sound too bad? Well, I am skeptical about the possibility to see my society changing soon, it will take a very long time, and I would not stand staring at negative situations without being able to change them… Therefore, I would prefer supporting my country from abroad through scientific collaboration, helping to unshadow the many talents existing in my country.

Yes, it is difficult to go back to my country and I am now fully adapted to European society, although I do love my country so much. My dream is that an ever-increasing attention is given in my country to education and research. I dream to see my country with a better vision.

Radwa Khalil is currently at Jacobs University in Bremen (Germany). She enrolled a PhD in the program of Neuroscience, Psychology and Methods, and is finally robustly engaged toward a career in neuroscience research.