Demian Wassermann : coding our current knowledge of the brain
Researcher in the Athena project-team at Inria Sophia Antipolis – Méditerranée, Demian Wassermann has just received a prestigious 2017 “Starting Grant” from European Research Council (ERC). Specialist on mathematical and computational modelling of the brain, he is going to pursue his research in the formalisation of current anatomical knowledge into a domain specific language (DSL).
Demian is the co-leader of the Inria@SiIiconValley associate team LargeBrainNets on “Characterizing Large-scale Brain Networks Using Novel Computational Methods for dMRI and fMRI-based Connectivity” with Stanford University.
Understanding the brain is one of the ultimate frontiers in current science. This task is so complex that no discipline can tackle it on its own. Hence, this work requires working across different disciplines and interacting with people from an extensive set of backgrounds.
Could you tell us a little about your background until now?
I started in coding in Argentina at the early age of eight. Driven by this I pursued a Computer Science degree (bachelor & masters) at the university of Buenos Aires, one of the most prominent ones in Latin America. After this, I tried to start a PhD in medical imaging in Argentina but right after starting I found an advertised internship at Inria at the Odyssée research team under the mentorship of Rachid Deriche with whom I ended up doing my PhD in developing methodologies to represent and characterise neuroanatomy.
After my PhD in felt I needed to be closer to the application so I went to Harvard Medical School, specifically to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. There, I found an amazing group with excellent principal investigators such as CF Westin, W M Wells and N. Makris. I stayed there for a bit more than three years and it’s there where the initial concepts of my ERC project started to sprout.
In 2014, a bit less than four years after my PhD I came back to Inria as a tenured researcher within the Athena projet-team. From the beginning I started co-advising students, developing prior and new projects, and cementing my collaborations with cognitive and clinical groups within France and across the world.
What’s the focus of your research at Inria?
My research is centered in computational neuroanatomy. I work on a full spectrum of problems ranging from developing mathematical models for tissue and structure of the brain, adjusting these with Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, and using these models to understand cognition.
My research entails mathematical and computational modelling of the brain. Specifically it requires designing and performing experiments in MRI machines on human and animal models as well as working with medical doctors and cognitive neuroscientist to design experiments and methods to probe cognition and brain function.
What interested you in this particular field of research?
I think that understanding the brain is one of the ultimate frontiers in current science. Furthermore, this task is so complex that no discipline can tackle it on its own. Hence, this work requires working across different disciplines and interacting with people from an extensive set of backgrounds.
What makes your approach original?
For several years computational neuroanatomy has been devoted to model the brain in terms of its geometry and finding geometrical equivalencies between subjects and species. I am working from a complementary angle: encoding current knowledge of the brain as a set of mathematical constructs that can be evaluated to analyze brain anatomy and behaviour. For short, I’m formalising the language of neuroanatomists and cognitive scientists as formal logics & mathematics and then using these formalisations to analyse actual brains.
What’s the subject of the project for which you were awarded this ERC Starting Grant?
My project is on the formalisation of current anatomical knowledge into a domain specific language (DSL).
What does this grant mean for you? How will you use the funds?
It gives me the possibility to build a team and foster collaborations to realise the vision of formalising neuroanatomical language.
What advice would you give to anyone wishing to obtain an ERC?
Don’t do it alone!Leverage your collaborators and colleagues, they can help with the design and pitch of the project!
For personal reasons Demian Wassermann has requested his transfer to the Paris region and will join in October the Parietal project-team at Inria Saclay Ile-de-France research centre, under the supervision of Bertrand Thirion. He will continue to collaborate with Athena project-team at Sophia Antipolis – Méditerranée and the Nice University Hospital (CHU) within the UCAJedi Idex framework.