Mathieu Boudreau completed his PhD in Biomedical Engineering in 2018. His thesis focused on characterizing and optimizing quantitative MRI techniques used for multiple sclerosis. Today, he works as a Research Fellow at the Montreal Heart Institute and as a Software Developer at the NeuroImaging Research Laboratory at Polytechnique (NeuroPoly).
Q: What made you first interested in doing a PhD?
I did my undergraduate degree in physics at Université de Moncton. Then, I did my Master’s at Western University in London, Ontario, where I got my taste for medical imaging—specifically MRI research. What I was doing during my Master’s was very specific (lung imaging using hyperpolarized gases), even within the field, so I wanted to do a PhD to get a more general experience. During my PhD I worked at the MNI (Montreal Neurological Institute) doing brain imaging (quantitative MRI for multiple sclerosis), and I found it very fun to work with clinical MRI machines instead of one built in a physics lab. I was learning a lot of new tools and a lot of skills that would be applicable to me in other labs, clinically or in industry.
Q: What was your relationship like with your supervisor?
At the end of my second year, my supervisor actually moved to Calgary. At that time—it was 2012—I had just gotten engaged, and I had been doing long distance with my wife during my Master’s when she was in Montreal for medical school and I was in London, Ontario. I didn’t want to do long distance with her again when my supervisor went to Calgary. A couple of students went with him and a couple stayed at McGill. He was very supportive and knew how to manage us remotely effectively.
I had a very compatible relationship with my supervisor. I appreciated that he was really good at listening actively to what my concerns were and helping me guide myself and my project in the right direction, with the constraints that I had. He was very flexible on what I wanted out of the PhD and where my focus was. I still chat with him from time to time.
Q: What was the most challenging part of the PhD for you? And how did you overcome that challenge?
A couple of years after my supervisor went to Calgary, around 2015, my wife graduated from medical school and for her residency she got matched in Newfoundland. So I followed along to Newfoundland. I had collected most of my data for two papers and was planning a third one focusing on simulations. I talked to my supervisor and my committee and we established that this plan was OK.
Once I moved away and was working from home, I struggled to focus for a while. It was very hard to separate work from home—something many of us are now experienced with during this pandemic. But things really changed for me when I found a coworking space and got a membership. It was a place where I could work alongside other people in the same situation as me and I could really put a limit on my workday. It started when I walked in the door and ended when I walked out.
I started writing out weekly plans of what I wanted to accomplish daily. This is when I was really able to accelerate the progression of my PhD. I’d make up a plan for the next months and I’d separate that into daily or hourly plans. If I didn’t achieve everything on my list by the end of the week, I would use it as a tool to self-reflect and make a more realistic plan for the following week. It helped me have focus during my day.
It also gave me a time limit so I wouldn’t waste too much time on things. In my plan for the week, I would spend two hours on a certain paragraph, for example, and then once the draft was done, I’d put it aside to review later. It kept me moving because even if you try to perfect everything, as soon as you hand it to your supervisor, they might rewrite it.
I had written a whole skeleton of my thesis and I made my supervisor check that I was hitting the right topics in each paragraph before I spent the time writing them in detail. I found it saved me time once I actually wrote up because we already knew what the thesis was going to look like. I just had to fill in the blanks. Instead of thinking of the thesis like a mountain I had to conquer, it was just a lot of little bumps.
Q: Could you talk a bit about what you do now and how you got there after your PhD?
Now I’m a Research Fellow at the Montreal Heart Institute and a Software Developer at NeuroPoly at Polytechnique. I was fortunate enough that the skills that I had gotten during my PhD were in demand, so a couple of professors reached out to me knowing that I was finishing and asked if I wanted to join their lab. I wasn’t able to move back to Montreal because my wife was still doing her medical residency in Newfoundland, but the fact that I completed my PhD remotely showed that I could complete projects remotely.
The two projects that I started working on when I joined NeuroPoly are open source software. One of them is for quantitative MRI and the other is for automatic histology segmentation of myelin and axons using deep learning. I do a lot of software maintenance for code being developed by Master’s and PhD students. I either develop features for them or assist them in using good coding practices and make sure the code is stable when one student leaves and a new one comes on.
A part of my work is funded through the Canadian Open Neuroscience Platform. We’re working on open science communication initiatives and what my supervisor likes to call “reproducible research objects”. Normally, papers are these static objects. Once you submit them, all the figures live on as they are forever. We’re working on enhancing papers by creating documents online that contain the code that generated those figures so that readers can reproduce the work or modify it for their needs.
Lastly, I’ve been leading the MRM Highlights initiative for the past year and a half. We do monthly interviews with authors that published a paper in the journal Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, of which I’m a Deputy Editor. We publish two blog posts for each feature, one that focuses on the authors and their work, and a second one that focuses on their reproducible research habits (sharing code, data, tools or services they use, etc.). These then get released in a magazine (led by Mark Chiew at Oxford) at our annual ISMRM (International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine) conference.
Q: It sounds like you didn’t spend much time job-hunting after your PhD. Did the professors who reached out to you already know you from your time in graduate school?
Near the second half of my PhD, I was contributing a lot on some external open source MRI projects and one of my current supervisors, Julien Cohen-Adad, noticed this passion for open science that I had. He reached out to me asking if I’d be interested to join the Neuropoly lab with him and Nikola Stikov, who was doing a postdoc in the same lab as me when I started my PhD. It was a good match because I enjoyed coding, I had an interest in contributing to open source projects, and I had scientific skills close to the fields that their lab is focused on.
Q: To sum up, is there anything you wish you knew before starting the PhD or any advice you’d like to give to students thinking about doing a PhD?
Around year three or four, a lot of PhD students have an existential crisis of “I don’t have papers yet, what’s my path to graduate?” I wish that I knew that everybody felt lost during their PhD at some point—that it’s not just me.
In terms of whether or not to do a PhD, I’d say definitely go for it! I was very fortunate that I was very compatible with my supervisor. If you’ve not started your PhD yet, I’d suggest don’t look for the “perfect” supervisor, look for a supervisor that is compatible with you. Do you prefer freedom? Do you prefer hands-on guidance? Try to identify that early in your search for an advisor. When you do your interviews ask current students what type of supervisor that person is. Do they meet with you daily, weekly, monthly? I think that’s the most important key to success. When you’re not in sync with the way your supervisor advises their students, that’s when a lot of people have a bad experience. It’s not necessarily that the student was bad, or the supervisor was bad, it’s just that they might not have been compatible with each other.
The most important advice that I would tell every PhD student that just started is to please, please, backup your data! Backup your computers. Back them up multiple times. Back them up regularly. It’s such a small thing but can have a major impact if you are unlucky and didn’t do it. My computer died three times in my PhD, but thankfully I had backups. If you’re two years, three years, four years into your PhD and you didn’t back up your stuff and your hard drive dies…that can crush you. Spend the extra money, buy two hard drives, have one at home, have one at work—you don’t want them to be in the same location the same time in case of a fire or a flood or a break-in. It can be a good idea to have one copy on the cloud as well. Just, please, backup your data!
This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.