The following is part of the Neuroscientist Portrait Project, a look at the lives of neuroscientists inside vs. outside of the lab with an emphasis on highlighting the stories of those who are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Created by Christine Liu and sponsored by Berkeley Neuroscience. All photos by Reynaldo Cayetano Jr. The portrait below was originally published as part of a zine in November 2016. Read the full zine here.
I study the development of the circuit in the retina that enables neurons to selectively respond to motion in certain directions. This is then communicated to the rest of the brain, where extracted features of the visual field are then pieced back together, allowing you to seamlessly see what you see!
How did you get interested in neuroscience research?
You know that story about how we don’t know if the red you see is the red I see? I thought about these things a lot as a child, when I lived mostly in the world created in my head — feeling like others don’t see what I see — that we’ve all just learned to name things the same. I still retain these ideas in my current research and they’ve brought such a romantic light to the study of the circuits mediating vision. I’m constantly amazed at how we can characterize circuits and identify neuronal subtypes with such detail, yet NEVER ACTUALLY know what these neurons SEE – isn’t that absurd? But, I’m totally content with the idea that the brain is and always will be a complete mystery and that’s why I became a neuroscientist.
Who are you in the lab? Who are you outside of the lab?
Because I study the retina, where light IS the stimulus we use to record responses, I conduct all of my experiments in the dark. It’s interesting to navigate a space illuminated by only one spot of red light– your surroundings are reduced to the stagnant hum of the vents, and the scanning of the two-photon laser. It’s pretty peaceful and like nothing you would experience in the outside world. Outside of lab, I am a people person. One of my hobbies is taking black and white portraits of people, and I develop and print the film myself. I think film photography captures an essential element that our bustling daily, technology-driven lives make us forget: presence. You need to think about the photo before taking it; you need to think about the highlights, about the shadows, about contrast and aperture. You are capturing a moment in someone’s life when they are present and candid. Film photography also ties into my research because I can think about basic features in the visual scene and how they are translated on film and in the brain.
Describe your experience as a Muslim, Egyptian woman in science.
I am proud. Being an Egyptian woman, to me, is synonymous with strength and grace. We have had to overcome countless forces that have oppressed our potential and our belief in ourselves, including ourselves. I look at women like Helena Sedarous, the first Egyptian female doctor, and Sameera Moussa, the first Egyptian female nuclear scientist, and I feel so honored and proud to be part of a community of growing Egyptian female scientists. I am proud I represent so many underrepresented minority groups, all at once. In the past few years, the region of the world I come from, and the people I identify with, have been portrayed negatively by the media, so those who do not actively seek out the truth can easily believe these stereotypes. The Middle East is a place bursting with culture and knowledge and my hope is to change people’s perception about my culture — that it is founded by science and beauty, not by war.
What story does your non-lab photo tell?
Despite the fact that I wear baggy jeans to lab, I am still very feminine. I try to remain homogenous in my work space, in terms of what I wear, but outside work I enjoy wearing things that reflect my more feminine and creative side.
Describe challenges you have overcome to get to where you are now.
I’ve chosen to live across the world to pursue my passion in science – away from my family and the friends I grew up with. I thought the cartoons, movies and TV shows I had watched as a child had familiarized me enough with American culture, that I’d have no problem living here on my own. But, I’ve definitely felt alienated, confused and lonely living here, away from the people who know me the most. My passion for science has allowed me to power through those feelings — to endure being alone and being scared and challenged all the time. The beautiful thing is that I’ve found that everyone feels the same – we all share similar emotional profiles whether we choose to express them or not. The idea that I can relate on a very deep level with people who have no idea about my background, no idea who I was and no idea where I went to high school, has allowed me to create my own little community and family wherever my work takes me.
Describe a moment when you felt victorious.
When I proposed a project to my advisor and she called me creative! Maybe I was not being totally scientific with my reasoning, but I think a lot about converging my research with my creative interests, and it’s nice to have that validated.
Malak El-Quessny is a Berkeley Neuroscience PhD Program student in Marla Feller’s lab.