Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Rayyan Toutounji

Date of news: 2 July 2018

Rayyan TutunjiWhat's your name, nationality, current function, and department?
My name is Rayyan, I’m a PhD student from Lebanon in the Cognitive Affective Neuroscience Lab which is in the CNS department. I work at the Trigon.

What is the topic of your PhD project and what does your work look like in practice?
The work I do as part of my project is focused on stress. The main idea is to link the stress response in the brain to stress reactivity in day-to-day life using fMRI and ambulatory assessment with our subjects. This means our subjects get an fMRI scan after stress induction, and then wear a smartwatch and fill in surveys for a period of 1 week. This is done twice: once in a stressful week, and then again during a more relaxed week.

What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?
During my MSc I was part of a project investigating stress, reward, and dopamine in patients with Schizophrenia. I then moved back to Lebanon since I got deported (not really, my permit just expired). During my time there, I joined the American University of Beirut where I worked on setting up a DTI study with infants with ASD. This study involved pre-post therapy scans of this group. I additionally worked on a couple more projects focused and development, and set up the first fMRI study in the country. It was a lot of work considering there was no one else who knew what was going on. I was a fresh graduate, but somehow still the most qualified (which is not to say I was qualified at all though). I knew if I wanted a career in science I’d have to go somewhere where I can learn, and that was how I ended up here.

What aspect of your job do you excel at?
I think I’m extremely efficient at organizing things, and I rather enjoy it. This asset comes in handy when you’re dealing with a project that has so much multi-modal data coming in. Otherwise you’d drown in a sea of data.

What aspect of your job is or has been a challenge for you?
Sippin on that Anxie-tea.

Who inspires you the most and why?
I’d say my mother is a big inspiration for me. She inspired me to work hard for what I want, and not to give up. She went from a high school teacher to someone who is now running three different schools that teach and integrate Syrian refugee children back home. She managed to build a career while raising three (awesome) kids, and studying for her masters at the time.

What does your perfect weekend look like?
Pizza, beer, Netflix, and my husband.

What is your favorite book and why?
His Dark Materials Trilogy. I know its three books but they’re a series. It’s a YA book that is so much deeper than it is if you take it at face value. It poses interesting issues regarding the over-reach of religion among other topics.

What is an important life lesson you have learned in the past?
Never give up.

Do you have any handy PhD project-related tips and tricks to share?
Trello and TeamGannt. These two tools in combination have completely restructured my goals and task. I use them to keep track of the bigger picture. What’s great about it is that you can see what you have to do in the future, what you have to do right now, and what you’ve already done. I think keeping track of what you’ve accomplished and the tasks you completed is really important, because I think we all feel at some point that we haven’t done anything. If you keep what you’ve done in mind, it really helps you keep your sanity.