Lab Rotation Interview: Christian Holm Steenkjær

NAD Fellow Christian Holm Steenkjær talks about the value and challenges of participating in the NAD programme with a clinical background and how his lab rotation in the Embodied Computation Group at Aarhus University has brought him closer to establishing the foundation of a translational PhD project.

The NAD PhD programme greatly emphasises the interdisciplinary and translational aspects of neuroscience. Out of this year’s 16 NAD fellows, three are medical doctors. Christian Holm Steenkjær is one of them, and he went into the pre-PhD year with the clear goal of designing an excellent translational PhD project.

Christian is currently doing his third rotation in the Embodied Computation Group (Aarhus University) led by Professor Micah Allen. The research focus of the group is to investigate how decision-making, emotion and perception are shaped by embodied processes, using tools like computational modelling and advanced neuroimaging.

During his rotation, Christian will mainly be involved in a series of experiments on noradrenaline’s effects on uncertainty and prediction led by postdoc Ashley Tyrer. The on-going study examines how the use of beta blockers, specifically central acting versus cardiac specific beta blockers, influences prediction and certainty of prediction in decision making.

The study heavily employs magnetoencephalography (MEG), a neuroimaging technique useful for measuring the magnetic field generated by the electrical activity of neurons. This technique was one of the main reasons that Christian chose to do his third lab rotation in the Allen group:

“I have been focused on neurodegenerative diseases from the beginning, and quite early on, my interest coalesced into ALS. I was interested to explore the potential of implementing MEG in my PhD project”, Christian says.

In addition to getting hands-on experience with MEG, it was also important for Christian to assess whether it was realistic for him to handle the processing and analysis of MEG data for the duration of his PhD project as he, given his background, only had limited data processing experience beforehand.

While Christian’s topic of interest is quite different from the focus of the Embodied Computation Group, this is a great example of how an NAD fellow can benefit greatly from rotations in diverse labs:

“While Micah’s group certainly incorporates a translational perspective, they are mostly focused on the healthy brain and the foundation of how the brain works. As a clinician, I am of course more interested in the patient-oriented aspect, but I can learn a lot from the methods I have had a chance to try my hand at and the principles that they use.”


Incorporating the clinical research question from the ground up

Christian describes being a part of the NAD PhD programme and especially the lab rotations as an eye-opening experience, and he thinks that his clinical perspective often has been an advantage in terms of contextualising research findings:

“Being a clinician, especially with a neurological background, has often felt like an advantage, because the clinical question and the clinical perspective – and the ‘why’ of research – is always on my mind. It comes easily to me,” Christian explains.

However, having limited experience with basic neuroscience methods and techniques also comes with its own set of challenges:

“While there are advantages to being a clinician in this programme, the exact opposite could also be said to be true as I am at a disadvantage when it comes to methods and techniques in general. While I am used to looking at for example test scans in the clinic, I am also used to taking them at face value. When it comes to the nitty gritty details – what am I actually looking at and how does it work – that has often been an abstract thought for me. Often, I have felt like the stupidest person in the room, but you learn quickly, and the value of this increased understanding cannot be understated: You learn to incorporate the clinical question from the ground up.”

The NAD PhD programme has presented Christian with opportunities he would not have had otherwise:

“I feel extremely privileged to be in the position I am in right now. When I meet other clinicians who are doing a PhD or are in a research position, they are envious that I am able to go into these rotations. When I look back on what I have seen and learned in these past six months, I realise that I have had opportunities that I never would have had if I did a regular PhD project,” Christian says.

These opportunities of course include time for gaining experience with essential neuroscience methods and techniques, but Christian highlights how the rotations have made him aware of how easily collaborations can arise if you are open to them:

“Seeing collaborations form has been really interesting. When starting a PhD project, there are so many things to consider, and you can easily end up staying isolated in your own lab because that is all you can overcome. Being a part of the NAD programme has shown me that collaborations can easily happen.”

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