2016 Student in Focus: Guillaume Riesen

Students in Focus

The Stanford Neurosciences PhD program attracts students from diverse intellectual and cultural backgrounds. As part of the Students in Focus series, we will publish in-depth conversations with current PhD students whom have been nominated by their peers. These interviews will cover a variety of topics, but will seek primarily to understand what motivates our students to study the brain and how their individual perspectives inform the way they approach life, science, and--most importantly--the life sciences!



Jacob: Nice to see you Guillaume. Could you introduce yourself and tell us the most interesting thing you've done this summer?

Guillaume: Hey! I'm Guillaume Riesen, rising second year student. Last month I took a week long Stanford Graduate Summer Institute (SGSI) course in the Design School (D School) called 'Adventures in Design Thinking', wherein about 40 mostly incoming graduate students from across campus joined up to learn about the philosophy of human-centered design espoused by the D School. As a part of the course, we did some prototyping to apply their philosophy to real-world design problems facing graduate students on Stanford's campus. For example, we sought to find a way to increase interactions between graduate students from programs--specifically focusing on the social gap between students from the Business school and those from other Masters and PhD programs. During the week we came up with a plan to break down these barriers with dedicated tables in the Business School cafeteria with prompts that encouraged engaging conversation!


Jacob: Do you have any hobbies that have influenced the way that you think about scientific questions?

Guillaume: [Laughter]... YES!


Jacob: Let me rephrase--can you just describe one? We don't want to overwhelm the readers.

Guillaume: Let's see--I make a lot of things. One example is glasswork. I think that the way you explore the space of what a physical material can do is similar to how you explore a space scientifically. You sort of play around with it, and it is important to get in there and try new things, do a lot of prototyping, and most importantly fail a lot in order to realize the boundaries. If you want to see some of my creations, check out this gallery of my glasswork: http://criticaltinkerer.blogspot.com/2014/05/glass-2.html

Its also similar in that it is useful to set mid-term goals that are achievable but not unreasonable, which keep you grounded and on the right path. I feel like that sort of playful approach is useful for science, but I'm only in my first year and haven't had too much time to apply it. Hoping it will pan out!


Jacob: Almost everyone in the Neuroscience PhD program has interests that overlap with other disciplines. Is that true for you, what are the disciplines that overlap, and why did you decide on Neuroscience specifically?

Guillaume: I think that I actually chose Neuroscience because of that overlap. I was really struggling with my interests being too broad, even in undergrad, and I just wanted something that would just serve as a nexus, touch on a lot of interesting subjects, and hopefully bring some of the more disparate thoughts together. So I do have an interest in diverse things such as human psychology, computer programming, math in small doses (I don't know as much as I would like but I'm working on it). Neuroscience is just anything that you can apply to figuring out how humans work, in the most interesting possible way!


Jacob: What is most important to you as a student of Neuroscience: The enjoyment you derive in answering a research question or the 'importance' of that question for humanity (however you would like to interpret that)?

Guillaume: I'm still trying to figure this out, but currently I am leaning towards the personal enjoyment end of the spectrum. Maybe I am hedonistic in some sense, so hopefully that's okay, but I think that when pursuing what makes me most excited I am best capable of contributing to scientific discovery. It makes me the best scientist I can be and the most creative, passionate person that I can be. So I'm definitely leaning in that direction. I could see that changing in the future and might become more interest in medical research and having an effect on the physical world, but part of me right now feels like I won't tilt in that direction.


A Phantom Limb box-- an device used to demonstrate the interesting ways our brain can associate a dummy limb as being our own.

Jacob: Are there specific Stanford Neuroscience Program events that you value, and why?

Guillaume: I really appreciate the genuine openness to feedback that our administrators have when dealing with students and seeking to improve the program. It's pretty rare, actually, for people to have such an honest interest in making a program be the very best that it can be--and I really feel that strongly from Tony Ricci and other faculty members, and it is awesome. The feedback sessions that we have with Tony after each of the core teaching modules throughout the year, where we would all sit out in a field and just open up the forum to discussion, really made me feel like the administrators were engaged and trying to learn about our experiences and opinions. Also the Town Hall, where students come together to discuss positive and negative changes to the program that happened during the preceding academic year had the same feeling to it.


Jacob: How did your expectations coming into the program differ from the reality of your first year experience?

Guillaume: I'm struggling to remember my expectations--it has been a long year and so much has happened. I think that I expected the coursework to be significantly different. I was initially worried that I would struggle with the academic work, as I had been out of undergrad for two years and hadn't done homework in such a long time. It turned out fine though, and I learned a lot throughout the process (even though it was the first year of the core module system). Just the variety things that I've gotten to do has been astounding, though. I've been skydiving, whitewater rafting. I've showed middle schoolers real brains and taught high school students about the neurological underpinnings of optical illusions for the SPLASH program. I built a device to bring to a bar in San Francisco that made people think that a rubber finger was their own! It's just been a crazy year!


Jacob: What is your favorite memory from SIN bootcamp last year?

Guillaume: It was all a bit of a sleep-deprived blur, but just the act of patching cells was completely amazing to me. I had never done any of that before, and I really appreciated having that intimate moment with a neuron--especially as someone who is trying to become a neuroscientist.


Jacob: What are you most looking forward to in the 2016-2017 academic year?

Guillaume: I'm hoping that I'll start to find traction on a project that is interesting to me. I'm starting to encircle a phenomenon, but haven't figured out how far it goes or how deep my starting point has to be, or even what my eventual contribution to the field will be. But these are the sorts of questions I'm dealing with, and I've had an awesome amount of support from the two Principal Investigators I've been working with (Tony Norcia and Justin Gardner). They have really done a great job in guiding my approach to choosing a research question - showing me to think about it as a process that you can make progress on rather than a decision to be made at any one point in time. Right now I'm just getting my boots on the ground to start experimenting!


Jacob: Well, thank you for your time Guillaume. Until next time!