What's your name, nationality, current function, and department?
My name is Giacomo, from Venice, Italy, I’m a third-year PhD candidate at the Donders Center for Cognition, working with Marius Peelen.
What is the topic of your PhD project and what does a working day in your life look like?
My project investigates how the brain exploits the rich structure of our everyday environment to predict missing information: for example as I move around a room, the objects in the room will rotate in a predictable manner. Do we use this information to anticipate what things will look like from one moment to the next? And what is the point of predicting things? The general consensus is that it allows us to process the world, and act on it, faster and more efficiently, but a clear idea of what the advantages are of having a little graphics engine in our head, and how it works, is still lacking.
What my research looks like in practice is me making people sit in a dark room in front of a screen, or lie down in the MRI scanner, doing some task that hopefully involves the kind of predictions that we also use in real-world situations.
The other part of my job is to sit down and try to make sense of this data.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
As a kid, a comic artist. I always loved drawing and art, and this has played a strong role in my choice of visual perception as my main interest.
What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?
After becoming interested in brains in high school, I went to do my bachelors in the only department in Italy that branded itself as cognitive science instead of psychology, in Rovereto, a very pretty town in the mountains.
I stayed there for my Master’s in cognitive neuroscience, and towards the end, as I was looking for a PhD position, I found out that one professor in my department, working on topics very close to my interests, had just received an ERC grant and had a position available. I contacted him, and he told me yes, the position is available, but it’s gonna be in Nijmegen, as I’m moving to the Donders. I happened to have visited Nijmegen before, for a strange coincidence (my cousin did his Master’s here), and didn’t find it too bad, so here I am!
What excites you about working in science?
That it’s essentially a creative job, there are no “correct answers” and you have to invent your job every day, and come up with your own, hopefully interesting questions.
It also allows a degree of practical flexibility that people in most other professions can only dream about!
What aspect of your job is or has been a challenge for you?
Managing so many different, often unrelated tasks (coding, collecting data, teaching, reading, writing…), while still keeping track of the “grander goal” of my work has been a challenge, and it forced me to become much more organized. I have made progress on that front, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement!
What does your perfect weekend look like?
My perfect spare moment usually involves art and/or music in some form, either enjoying it by going to an exhibition or a concert, or making it myself: singing, drawing, or making computer art. I also love learning new things and reading. So my free time mostly involves choosing between all of these activities and not doing any of them.
What is the most important advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?
Don’t be scared to venture out of your supposed “field”: we’re lucky to work in a science in which the boundaries are still not so defined, so chances are that your vision lab and the decision making lab upstairs are working on the same thing without knowing it, calling the same things with different words.
Also, don’t be scared of math and coding! After some startup cost, they will make your life easier and expand your possibilities immensely.
Is there a project or anything you're involved with that you'd like to promote?
Even though I’m not directly involved, a group of PhDs is trying to establish a brown bag meeting at the Donders, to give people an opportunity to get to know each others’ research, which I feel doesn’t happen as often as it should! So any Donderian reading this, stay tuned and join us when we’ll finally start (soon)!