From mentee to mentor: a conversation with two QBIN awardees, Louis Collins and Hassan Rivaz

Interview conducted by Christine Tardif and transcribed by Estrid Jakobsen / 2022-06-28 

During the 2022 QBIN Scientific Day in Sherbrooke on June 2nd, three exceptional keynote lectures were given by this year’s William Feindel lecturer, Professor Louis Collins, and the two recipients of the 2022 Rising Star in Bio-Imaging in Quebec award, Professors Sylvia Villeneuve and Hassan Rivaz. In order to learn more about their career paths, research, and interests, the QBIN blog team conducted interviews with each of the award recipients. Check out the interview with Sylvia Villeneuve, and continue reading for a joint interview with Louis Collins and his former postdoctoral fellow, Hassan Rivaz. This interview was conducted by QBIN co-director, Christine Tardif, and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Louis Collins (left) and Hassan Rivaz (right)

Louis Collins is a professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Neurology & Neurosurgery, associate member in the departments of Computer Science and Medical Physics and associate member of the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, and the Center for Intelligent Machines at McGill and world-renowned expert in image processing for quantitative analysis of medical images. He heads the Neuro Imaging and Surgical Technologies (NIST) laboratory at the Brain Imaging Center of the Montreal Neurological Institute

Hassan Rivaz earned his PhD (2011) from Johns Hopkins University and completed an NSERC post-doctoral fellowship at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) before joining Concordia University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as well as the PERFORM Centre as an Assistant Professor, in 2014. He holds the Concordia University Research Chair in Medical Image Analysis and is the Director of the IMPACT Lab: Image Processing And Characterization of Tissue.

Christine: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in research and what inspired you to make that decision?

Louis: So for me there was never a decision to do a career in research, it happened by default. I had a company with my father, we went bankrupt, and the only way that I could escape the company and still maintain the respect of my father, who had done his own PhD, was to go back to school. And so I went back and did my master’s degree. I was doing something in electrical engineering, I was never being paid, my supervisor wasn’t all that cool, and then I ran into Bruce Pike at Steven Zucker’s computer vision class. Bruce said, “Why don’t you come up the hill to the Neuro and talk to Terry Peters, he’s looking for somebody who can code”. And so my career is completely due to some fortuitous meeting with Bruce Pike in the back of the class where he and I were making jokes about the class. So there was never any decision, it was just blown by the wind in this general direction.

Hassan: For me, when I look back, I think I was built to do research. Even when I was in first grade, like seven years old, I had a notebook of inventions, and then my older brother found it and made fun of me forever. That aside, I think I wasn’t mature enough until I started my PhD to seriously think about an academic versus industrial career. My PhD supervisors, Greg Hagar and Gabor Fichtinger, and also Emad Boctor, were really great supervisors. So it was during my PhD that I realized that I really wanted to become a professor.

Christine: I’m sure your kids would have loved to see that book of inventions! Okay, so that’s how things got started. Can you describe your career trajectories a bit? Were there any tipping points or transformative moments?

Louis: When I came back from my postdoc in France, I was working for Alan [Evans] as a research associate and I was quite happy – no responsibilities, playing around in the lab doing some fun stuff, and Terry Peters left the MNI and went to Western and there was now this position available. And so they announced the position, solicited the CVs. So they got a whole slew of CVs, but Richard Murphy, who was director of the institute at the time, was not impressed with any of the CVs they received. And so, talking to Alan and a few others he said “You must know some people that could apply for this job. Why haven’t any of your postdocs applied, what’s going on?”. And so Alex Zijdenbos and I were asked by Alan to submit our CVs for this position. And neither one of us were really too keen, so Alex and I went out to lunch and he said “Well I’m not going to compete with you for it, so do you want it?” and I said “No I don’t want it, do you want it?”, “No I don’t want it”. So I can’t remember if we drew straws or flipped a coin or something like that, but I submitted my CV for the position. So that again is a blowing in the wind pivot point to becoming a prof. But this is a reflection of what life was 25-something years ago and how difficult it is now… The field has changed.

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