In this series of interviews, we are going to present LGBTQ+ scientists from Switzerland and abroad that are willing to speak up as role models to help others in similar situations as them.
One of the first things that strike you when you start chatting with Dr. Paweł Matusz, or ‘Paul’ – using the English translation of his name surely helps the ones unable to twist their tongues following the startling ortho-phonological rules of the Polish language – are the fast pace at which he speaks, showing how many ideas and concepts his brain can come up with, mixed with a sophisticated vocabulary.
Paul – let’s call him like that, to avoid copy-pasting the Polish dark ł “ew” each time – is a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist and Senior Academic Associate UAS who’s interested in how adults and mostly children pay attention in their everyday environments, mostly in classrooms. He’s really interested in how the brain supports those skills, and how attention shapes them, for instance the ability to read, do basic math, etc.
We invite you to learn more about his path and his willingness to act as a role model for LGBTQ+ scientists, spread the word and contribute to help them shine and beat the leaky pipeline.
Radar: So, Paul, please expound us your path to becoming a tech leader? What and/or who helped you in your professional choices?
Paul: Not sure if I’m a “tech leader”, but when it comes to my path to becoming a neuroscientist, it all began when I was doing a five-year Master’s in Psychology at the University of Social Sciences & Humanities (“SWPS University”) in Wrocław, Poland.
I have always been interested in how the mind and brain work when they combine different mental operations like those we use unknowingly to focus on important, relevant information.
For example, you are currently (editors’ note: during our interview) focusing on both what I am saying and the movement of my lips while I’m speaking. While I was studying for my master’s degree, I became very interested in how the brain supports these skills and unfortunately, at the time, there was not much research in Poland on this topic. I was very lucky to get a one-year Erasmus scholarship at the Cardiff University, in Wales, and that’s where I got really interested in everything related to attention. I then decided I wanted to do a PhD, and that the UK would be a great place for that!
Right after that exchange, when I came back to my alma mater in Poland, I had to make up for all the courses I couldn’t find equivalents for at the Cardiff University. I also had to write applications for a PhD in the UK, one of which got accepted, by the Birkbeck College of the University of London. There I learnt how to use EEG (electroencephalography) to study attention – you know, those hats with funny electrodes that record your brain’s electric activity? For my PhD, I used this method to study how we pay attention in a multisensory world, and I received a partial scholarship to do my own research on this topic.
Usually, one studies only how people pay attention to visual information, but in fact, while I’m speaking, in everyday settings, what we pay attention to is not only visual, but also audiovisual information – as well as touch, smell and taste, that are sometimes also part of the equation.
After my PhD, I did two postdoctoral trainings: one at the Oxford University, and another one in Lausanne at the Departments of Radiology and Neuroscience of the University Hospital Center (CHUV). There, I studied, among others, attention in children, and learnt how to do so using EEG. I decided to focus my research career on studying how attention skills develop, as I wanted my research to benefit society. Currently, one can assert that I am a leader, since I am the head of a unit called Group for Real-World Neuroscience (GROWN) at the University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland in Sierre (Valais, Switzerland). I came to be the head of this group thanks to the Ambizione grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).
What things in your career path helped you make the right professional choices?
Paul: I did two internships, one in marketing in Cardiff and another one in PR in London. I really appreciated those internships as they helped me disambiguate my life choices. Around the same time, I also did a short internship at a company working on neuromarketing. However, to me the science that was the base for their marketing strategies wasn’t rigorous enough. I thought I would probably learn more about the brain, attention and multisensory processes, if I pursued a PhD. And that is what I did. During my PhD and later I learnt how to study the brain in a rigorous way.
I would not be here without several people who helped me across the years. My friend Kuba, for instance. I started my research adventure while we were studying together, and he is now an associate professor at the SWPS University back in Wrocław. Our passion and collegiality were exactly what kept me going at the beginning of doing research as a student. Afterwards, there was a friend of my then-partner, who also had a PhD in psychology, who was instrumental for me creating an effective PhD research proposal. He taught me all those things – for example how to approach prospective mentors or how to structure a research proposal – that people from underrepresented minorities usually do not know about international academia (the so-called “hidden curriculum”).
I unfortunately didn’t get a full scholarship for my PhD. I was lucky to have a partner who helped me financially, but I still had to work in the evenings at the university and on weekends in a bar. This eventually ended up having a big toll on my research and mental health. Nonetheless, it was a life experience as well.
I believe that having access to the “insider” information and having financial support are invaluable for a research student in a foreign country. These direct or indirect means of support are extremely important, without them it’s close to impossible to make it! If we want to make academia more diverse and equitable, these are some of the most important areas we should focus on.
Radar: How do you convince investors?
Paul: First, I invariably use with kids the same rigor of research I use with adults. My aim is to understand how different fundamental skills are acquired, and at what age. I want to understand how children implement certain skills, for example, paying attention to visual information based on how important this information currently is (we can think this skill is important for children learning to read). I am also interested in the age at which children start to use similar skills to those of adults, and then trace the development of these aptitudes. To do so, I use multiple methods: I give the children participants game-like tasks on PCs or laptops, where they respond by pressing buttons, and I measure how fast and accurately they press those buttons and make inferences about the underlying mental processes.
This is how we’ve been studying mental processes for decades. I combine this method with decades of research on the brain. Here, electroencephalography is a very powerful method, as it records direct activity of the brain and we have developed knowledge of how to use EEG to study mental processes, including processes that help us pay attention. Here, I enrich this knowledge by analyzing the EEG with advanced computational methods. They allow me to identify brain mechanisms that might otherwise be overlooked. It is not always so easy to detect how the brain processes information stimulating multiple senses (e.g. vision and hearing), therefore it’s important to be using more advanced methods for this purpose. I am interested in attention and multi-sensory processing from an ethological point of view on how to improve the function of the brain – I want to clarify if attention can act as a sort of potential glue that allows a person to benefit from rehabilitation programs that a psychiatrist or a psychologist would give them. What I believe to be some of the most effective engines for rehabilitation are things that trigger our internal motivation, and which are encompassing for us. Many people think that video games and virtual reality are currently part of the most effective tools to deliver rehabilitation, that they can help develop new promising approaches for rehabilitating many human mechanisms, from limbs, to attention, or to eyes.
I’m trying to see whether attention can be the Holy Grail of brain plasticity.
My career development grant focuses on a project investigating how to use serious games on virtual reality in order to understand the role of attention in improving vision in children and adults with lazy eye. Lazy eye is the most common developmental vision disorder. It happens because one of the eyes is a little bit skewed in its axis or there’s a large difference in the visual acuity between the two eyes. Basically, the brain learns to ignore the signal from one of the eyes. Thus, kids with lazy eye learn to pay attention to the outside world with only one eye. With virtual reality games, we are trying to retrain their brain to use both eyes.
Attention… how far it can go? To what extent can we, as humans, benefit from the plasticity of our brain? My goal was to trigger our internal motivation, with video games and virtual reality, which are currently the most effective and promising tools to treat neurological issues.
What, in your view, is the role of public relations in supporting sciences and how do you use PR in your own strategy?
Paul: I think that Twitter is a very important tool nowadays. As they say “if you’re not known, then, you might simply not exist” (laughs). Some of the most visible and successful scientists are quite active on Twitter. Twitter, like the science world, is dominated by White, straight guys from the Western world.
Twitter makes it a bit hard for less extroverted people to make themselves visible to the same extent. That, in turn reduces their ability to have their work being widely diffused. Tweeting of scientists from privileged backgrounds has a snowballing effect; they get more retweets, so they post more, and then they get cited more. This kind of self-fulfilling prophecy increases the social injustice.
Here, what is interesting is the so-called imposter syndrome. This syndrome might not be explained by low self-esteem, but it could rather be an indicator of one’s (lack of) privilege. That is, people don’t feel that academia is for them because with their background they don’t fit the template, they don’t see people like them in positions of power, and they don’t have access to the mentioned “hidden curriculum”. Nowadays, thanks to Twitter, less privileged people get more heard, but there’s still a lot of progress to be made… There’s still a lot of work to do, for people from underprivileged backgrounds to be more visible, and I’m trying to do my (small) part!
As a non-Westerner, from a poor background, I’ve developed support networks on Twitter, because they are often lacking in the science community for people that come from underprivileged backgrounds. These networks are informal and are meant to connect people all around the world to support each other. So, Twitter is somehow a double-edged sword.
PR companies that are interested in amplifying the voices of people from a underprivileged background, like what you at Radar PR want to do for the LGBT community, have an important mission to fulfil. Things are slowly changing. The ALBA network, part of the FENS society, for example, is increasingly active and has recently organized, among others, a webinar with neuroscientists from the LGBT community. That is an important event.
I also participate in outreach activities such as Les Mystères de l’Unil, L’Hôpital des Nounours at the University and Hospital Center of Lausanne. Being able to communicate and interact with the public is of huge importance for spreading knowledge and inspiring future generations of scientists. Here, the The DORA declaration – signed by SNSF – is another great initiative, as it helps perform a fair assessment of scientific achievements. It specifies that the citation rate of articles in a journal – or journal impact factor – does not allow an accurate and sufficient estimation of individual’s achievements. The Declaration postulates that the outreach activity of a scientist matter too, and this is a promising, much needed change in research. Blog posting is also a great way to spread science, and my team and I continuously contribute to the Bold Blog of the Jacobs Foundation, an internationally renowned foundation working to improve the ability of children to learn in today’s world.
Do you observe major differences on how science is supported in Switzerland, or in your home country, Poland, or the ones you lived and worked in, compared to the US?
Paul: Recently, Poland has started to invest a lot in science. The lack of such support when I was starting my research career, together with general absence at the time of human neuroscience were two important reasons why I and other young scientists left Poland. Some of them came back, others did not; nonetheless, Polish neuroscience is currently developing really well!
I spent the first years of my studies in Poland, but was lucky to be spending summers working in London during my Master’s. I was not feeling safe or comfortable in Poland. In London, before the financial crisis of 2008 and Brexit, I lived a full and free life, in a positive atmosphere. So, when I arrived to London for my PhD, I decided that I’ll be open. I did feel more comfortable in London, but back then at the university no one was talking about LGBT issues. To this day still, I can count on my fingers the number of gay neuroscientists I know. Moreover, I know basically zero non-Western gay neuroscientists.
We need representation. Me joining the event organized by the ALBA network equates to my first full coming out, especially in my home country. I am primarily doing this because, back in the days, I had zero role models in Poland – that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now– as I had to hold myself by the skin of my teeth in international neuroscience to be where I am today .
You wanted to talk to us about the leaky pipeline?
Paul: Yes. Indeed, as you advance in academia, there are fewer and fewer people from underprivileged backgrounds. The system is not developed for them. For example, when I was reacting to sexist jokes over happy hours, I became alienated, then cut out of some social circles, simply because I reacted to their misbehavior.
The system is made for straight white men trained in Western science from well-off families. The more your background does not match this so-called template, the higher is the likelihood that you’re going to fall out along the pipeline.
“Those immigrants are always the most desperate”, imagine being told something like that when you’re asking for opportunities, as a PhD student, for example, when you’d like to go to an additional conference in one year; and by someone who is, by the way, part Polish. Another type of microaggressions is when colleagues at social events rarely ask gay people about their family or hobbies – which is kind of strange.
I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood, so I can deal with microaggression – I might demonstrate more grit than others who are not used to the risk of getting beaten up or harassed daily, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel the pain and distress they are feeling. It’s just that I might not be as reactive to it. Microaggressions are not great for one’s mental health. I don’t really feel alienated, but chatting with other underprivileged people on Twitter, non-white or non-straight, help me and many other people keep going.
So, I am cis and can sometimes pass [as straight], thus I am trying to give it back to others who are less privileged.
Pertaining to my situation as a gay scientist in quite conservative Switzerland, I don’t feel more alienated than in London. Here and there, I was a gay neuroscientist – maybe allowing myself to be a bit more flamboyant there. I feel privileged to achieve what I have achieved and to now hold the position that I am currently holding. But I feel that I have not been doing enough to directly support others. So, I’m here trying to do whatever my time and energy allows me to help others rise.
In my short time in Switzerland, I trained and mentored young scientists from Eastern Europe, and I’m very pleased that they manage to somehow survive, and that they are shining. This is one of the main advantages besides just training new scientists – being able to give the opportunity to someone from an under-privileged background who bears similarity to you, when you didn’t have those opportunities. It’s very satisfying for an academic like me, as I want to be helpful. In the end, I think it will eventually all snowball, that’s why I am willing to help others, to give back for what I have managed to achieve.