MNS portrait #2 – Kenza El Houssaini, mathematical neuroscientist

Kenza is sitting at her desk in a postdoc office, crowded and without frills but filled with light, as typical for “La Timone” campus in downtown Marseille. On the screen of her computer plots of mathematical curves pop up, filled with complex trajectories whirling in phase space like tridimensional arabesques.

“These curves describe different behaviors of the so called ‘epileptor’ system”, explains to us Kenza.
“These curves describe different behaviors of the so called ‘epileptor’ system”, explains to us Kenza. “Can you see how the trajectories change in shape when this parameter cross the ‘separatrix’ line? The epileptic seizure stops and cannot be generated anymore”. Kenza’s PhD in Mathematical Neuroscience, under the direction of Viktor Jirsa at the Institute for Systems Neuroscience (INS, Aix-Marseille University, southern France) cast light on the way in which brain circuits can enter and leave the epileptic state. “It must happen this way, independently from the exact biophysical mechanism, because there are universal mathematical principles which make very little room for alternatives”, elaborates Kenza. Her theoretical work, rigorous but rooted into experimental and clinical knowledge, will soon help designing disruptively new therapeutical approaches, optimized through virtual brain simulations.

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

 I introduce myself, I am Kenza El Houssaini, 31 years since a few days and I have a Moroccan nationality. I made my undergrad studies in Morocco, Casablanca, first a bachelor in Mathematics and then a master in Mathematics for Engineering sciences. I then obtained a PhD in computational Neuroscience in Marseille in 2014, under the direction of Dr. Viktor Jirsa.

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

With the time, while my intimate knowledge of the equations grew, I also started feeling emotionally attached to the model up to the point of referring to it as to “my” Epileptor.
My research focuses on the mathematical analysis of the epileptic dynamics of neural circuits (see e.g. here).

My thesis consisted into performing a very detailed analysis of a mathematical model of epilepsy, grounded on the theory of bifurcations and dynamical systems. This were among the topics I was most attracted from during my undergraduate studied in Mathematics and I enjoyed using these techniques for my PhD work, but now in the context of a concrete neuroscience problem.

My director, Viktor Jirsa, had started developing the Epileptor shortly before the beginning of my thesis. Of course, Dr. Jirsa could envision the dynamical richness of his mathematical model. But what really makes me proud is that I was the first to dissect the behavior of this model in full detail (even if with a good guide). As a “pioneer”, I could fully assume the challenge to unveil, systematically and with precision, the aspects potentially useful to understand –and, in perspective, control– the dynamics of epileptic seizures.

There was also a funny aspect. With the time, while my intimate knowledge of the equations grew, I also started feeling emotionally attached to the model up to the point of referring to it as to “my” Epileptor.

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

I was the first ever Moroccan scientist graduating with a thesis on the domain of computational neuroscience, which is a quite unique chance!
During my undergraduate studies, I had seen applications of dynamical systems to epidemiology. However COMPUTATIONAL neuroscience were a domain not really developed in Morocco. Discovering this novel field and starting to work into it was for me my first difficulty. Nevertheless, I consider this complete novelty another positive aspect of my research topic. By the way, during my PhD defense, my thesis committee made me aware if the fact that I was the first ever Moroccan scientist graduating with a thesis on the domain of computational neuroscience, which is a quite unique chance!

Another difficulty was my insufficient technical training, since we did not study bifurcation theory at a sufficient depth in Morocco. Nevertheless I quickly decided myself to reinforce my skills in order to overcome the difficulties, and I managed to do it.

The English language was a major difficulty too, because I had learnt only Spanish during my high school. In Morocco, one learns French as first foreign language, since primary school and then the teaching of a second foreign language is introduced at high school, usually English in science & technics oriented curricula. However, Morocco wanted to test in several high schools through the country –including unfortunately my one!– the teaching of Spanish instead of English. I do not know whether it is a matter of Fate or bad luck, but my classroom was the only one concerned by this unfortunate experimentation! I wish to thank you my director for having accepted that I initially made my oral presentations in French, with slides written in English. Through the repeated readings of articles and the listening of presentations in English I gradually started better mastering this language. In the last year of my PhD, I was brave enough to make my first presentation in English. It was a presentation of my PhD research in front of all institute members during our yearly retreat (yes, I was brave!). I received very nice and useful feedbacks and this is an experience I am proud of.

Finally, another difficulty was limited time. I think that this problem concerns a majority of graduate students but I want to stress it because it touched me profoundly. Preparing my manuscript in English took a very long time. My first oral test talk was just one week before defense, my last one, two days before. I had to go through several sleepless nights in order to complete my memoire! How did I overcome this? I usually do not cry for issues related to my work, but I did cry a lot in this final period of my PhD, because of physical and mental exhaustion. But I washed my tears and kept working hard and the manuscript was finally over. My family, my director, my lab colleagues supported and helped me a lot and I will always remember this.

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

One cannot succeed in life without help. There are so many persons who helped me! I will cite only a few of them, without whom I could not be where I am now.

On the personal side: my parents and all my family. They encouraged me continuing my studies and enrolling the university and gave me the means to install myself in France during my PhD. My family really supported my free choice, without commenting and giving me full freedom. Believe me, not all the Moroccan families would give a similar freedom of choice, especially since I had even not yet had my 17-th birthday! I cannot mention all, but I will name at least my mother Amal and my grand-mother Hallouma. I will not forget then my father, although he quit this universe before the beginning of my PhD. I so strongly endorsed and exhorted me! He was so proud of me!

I could come back to Morocco only after having acquired better skills and training, in order to then actively develop computational neuroscience research activities in my country.On the professional side: I already mentioned the help of my lab colleagues. I wish to thank especially Dr. Driss Boussaoud –researcher at INS and funding member of the Mediterranean Neuroscience Society– as well as my professors in Morocco: Dr. Naceur Achtaich, Dr. Hassan El Hamri and, specially, Dr. Noura Yousfi, for encouraging me pursuing a PhD in France. Yes, I really owe so much to Dr. Yousfi, for her continued and invaluable trust throughout my entire bachelor.

I keep then the best for the end! I intend my PhD director Viktor Jirsa. I wish to thank him for the chance and the honor he gave me by accepting to be my mentor. I’ll never forget how he supported me when I was in doubt or failing. I have no words to express all my gratitude for his trust, his help, for all.

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

No, I would actually prefer continuing my career abroad. I could come back to Morocco only after having acquired better skills and training, in order to then actively develop computational neuroscience research activities in my country.

Kenza El Houssaini is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Systems Neuroscience at Aix-Marseille University, serving as the local “my Epileptor” expert.