Flux Blog

Edgy Cognitive Neuroscience, Casual Mentorship, and Dismantling Unjust Systems: A Conversation with Linda Spear Award Winner Lucina Uddin

Aug 9, 2023 | For community

Congratulations to Dr. Lucina Uddin, this year’s winner of the Flux Society’s Linda Spear Mid-Career Award! This award recognizes Dr. Uddin’s outstanding scientific contributions and social impact on our community. In addition to her tremendous scientific track-record, Lucina is an exceptional scientific communicator, a strong believer in open science, and a true advocate for diversity and inclusion in science. I sat down with Lucina to ask about her scientific journey, her thoughts on the key challenges facing our field today, and her advice for trainees interested in careers in developmental cognitive neuroscience.

When Lucina was young, she heard the myth that we only use 10% of our brains and thought, “what would happen if we could figure out what’s going on with the other 90%?” Driven by simple curiosity, she “stumbled into neuroscience” and found her way into research. After completing the pre-med curriculum as an undergraduate at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), she realized that she didn’t want to go to medical school after all, and instead applied to UCLA’s PhD program in Psychology/Cognitive Neuroscience. Her start as a researcher began with really broad questions: she recalls thinking, “I want to study consciousness! That’s the most interesting thing!” but soon realized that this topic was a bit “unwieldy” for one dissertation. As she narrowed down her focus, she became interested in studying self-face recognition as a proxy for self-awareness (an important aspect of consciousness). 

Lucina used her time as a graduate student to explore lots of different tools and gained an impressive array of diverse skills. She worked with multiple human neuroimaging methods (fMRI, EEG and TMS) and became familiar with different clinical populations (split brain patients, children with autism spectrum disorder, etc.). Lucina then traveled on a winding road working with “fearless mentors” to complete her post-doctoral training at NYU and Stanford, then taking faculty appointments at Stanford and the University of Miami, before finally returning to UCLA where she is jointly appointed in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and the Developmental Area in the Department of Psychology. Lucina also currently serves an important role as the Associate Director for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion for the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. 

Lucina’s current research program seeks to understand basic principles of brain organization, both in healthy populations and in disorders characterized by atypical development of brain circuitry. First, she seeks to answer fundamental questions in human neuroscience, not only about how our brains are organized, but also about how differences in the functional dynamics of the brain support different behaviors. She then applies this basic neuroscience knowledge to developmental questions, like “how do networks change and evolve over the course of childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood to support more sophisticated processes like executive function?” Then, she applies this knowledge about healthy brain development to neurodevelopmental disorders and psychiatric conditions that involve alterations to brain connectivity, including autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. Lucina’s unique ability to apply basic neuroscience principles to questions in developmental neuroscience and psychiatry has been highly advantageous. As she puts it, “the less we know about basic brain principles the more we’re groping around in the dark.”

An important goal of Lucina’s current work is investigating factors that promote positive life outcomes in adults with autism spectrum disorder who are transitioning out of school programs and are faced with new challenges in this transition. By characterizing individual differences in brain network organization in adults with autism, Lucina and her team hope to leverage fundamental principles about behavioral profiles and brain network heterogeneity to better tailor interventions. Lucina’s team is also chasing a serendipitous finding that kids with autism spectrum disorder who come from bilingual homes have better executive functioning than children from monolingual homes. Even though her lab hadn’t ever studied bilingualism before (and in fact very few studies existed at all using neuroimaging to look at bilingualism in kids!), Lucina courageously decided to pursue this topic. She says “The reason this is exciting to me is that for many years there was this recommendation that you should teach kids only one language at home if they had any neurodevelopmental disorder, but it turns out there’s actually no negative effects of being raised in a bilingual home for language or cognitive development and in fact there may be advantages for executive function.”  Importantly, Lucina reflected that the student who first observed this striking phenomenon, Celia Romero, is bilingual herself and that “no one else might have thought to look for it.” This highlights the importance of having a diverse team of scientists in order to do the best science, because “as you diversify science you diversify the scientific questions.”

When asked what she thought were the most pressing issues in developmental cognitive neuroscience, Lucina said that a key challenge will be thinking about our scientific questions in a way that doesn’t further stigmatize or create challenges for individuals. As an example, Lucina reflected that predictive modeling has become an increasingly “hot topic” in the field, as researchers seek to identify which children will go on to develop psychiatric illnesses as they grow up. According to Lucina, “the challenge is, what do we mean by prediction exactly? Are we being too deterministic about it?” With so many factors at play in a child’s life, it’s difficult to say with certainty who will go on to develop which conditions; even with large-scale studies that include assessments about many features of a child’s environment, we could still be missing critical factors at play. So a key challenge for the field will be really thinking about what factors affect neurodevelopment (e.g., socio-cultural factors) and making sure we measure them, as well as “contextualizing any question in a way that minimizes potential future harm.”

Outside of the laboratory, Lucina loves yoga, running, and voraciously reading fiction, including sci-fi and fantasy novels. In fact, she says that if she wasn’t a scientist, her dream job would be writing fiction novels and says, “I still haven’t given up hope that I’ll write some novels someday!” Her love of writing has also been an asset to her as a scientist: “People forget that most of what you do as a scientist is reading and writing and communicating – the fact that I’m a writer at heart makes this job super easy…for me this is why I like this job because you get to do all these things, write them up in a coherent way and share them.”

Lucina is also an active member of the online scientific community, with a Twitter bio that describes her as an “edgy cognitive neuroscientist” and a “casual mentor.” As she wrote about in a 2021 Trends in Cognitive Science paper, casual mentorship happens through informal exchanges in which more senior researchers in the field might offer guidance (e.g., “BTW, happy to chat if you need advice!”) to up-and-coming trainees. This type of mentorship is often overlooked but can be hugely valuable for trainees. Lucina says “it’s been huge for me and I try to pay it forward” so she encourages early career scientists to “take people up on it! Almost anyone in the world will give you a half hour of their time, and most people are happy when you reach out for advice.” Especially at transition points in one’s career, it can be really helpful to hear different perspectives beyond what one might get from formal mentorship experiences.

While she loves connecting with the scientific community on Twitter, she maintains that she is “not a Twitter complainer.” She says that it’s really easy to get bogged down in the negativity nowadays, but when we don’t talk enough about why we’re doing this we can lose sight of the positive aspects of academic careers. “We’re this big, huge, wonderful community and yeah, sure, there’s bad things about academia that you can read about on Twitter but there’s also wonderful things about academia and the community is one of them.” In her opinion, “it’s a great career, and probably better than most jobs for autonomy, flexibility, purpose, meaning, and community – it’s a good place to be!” Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are feeling isolation, stress and demotivation, and Lucina notes that these have been particularly tough times for trainees. In light of this, she reminds us that “we’re all in this together” and our mentors really want to see us succeed: “it’s a great positive community so to get through some of these harder times you really have to tap in and rely on these support networks.”

Always generous with her casual mentorship, Lucina was more than willing to share some great advice for the trainees in our community. She says that “people are a little too afraid to go where no one has gone before” and students often worry too much about what specific topic they’ll study during their PhD. She encourages trainees to step outside their comfort zone and recognize that “probably half of the projects you embark on are going to fail, so you should go for it!” She also reflected that early-career scientists often feel powerless to make change, but shared that “you have more power than you think!” She said that the Flux Society in particular is “filled with examples of strong female leaders who are not afraid to make changes and shake things up” and who live by the idea that “if something’s not there that you want to be there, just create it!”

In her own career, Lucina says that “when I saw something that needed doing I’ve always just done it.” A perfect example of this is her recent involvement in the creation of the new journal, Imaging Neuroscience. Lucina and the rest of the team of editors at NeuroImage recently resigned en masse after failed negotiations with the journal’s publishing company for lower publication fees. With the excessively high fees that were increasing every year, only the wealthiest labs could afford to pay to have their work published in NeuroImage, perpetuating a system “rife with inequality and injustice.” This bold and exciting move to put control back in the hands of the people creating the science demonstrates that “we don’t necessarily have to feel like we’re trapped in contracts with publishers” because it “turns out it’s an option (a radical option) to just start your own journal instead!” For Lucina, NeuroImage was the journal where she published her first paper in graduate school and she was an editor there for many years, so it was “hard to imagine blowing it up and dismantling it.” Despite this connection, she and others felt that in order to make the system more equitable “it couldn’t continue to be in the hands of a publisher that wasn’t listening to our concerns.” This groundbreaking action taken by Lucina and the rest of the editorial team now at Imaging Neuroscience is a true inspiration, not just to aspiring neuroscientists but also to fellow journal editors in the field who may soon follow suit. As Lucina put it, “it’s fun to be at a career stage where you can do what you think is important like blow up journals!”

Cognitive neuroscience will forever be fortunate that the myth of humans using only 10% of their brain power caught the interest of Dr. Lucina Uddin, even if the true story of how efficiently we use our brains is far more complicated and unresolved. Throughout her career so far, Lucina has given immeasurable contributions to developmental cognitive neuroscience, both in scientific advancements and in improving how our field functions. Now, Flux is delighted and honored to name Dr. Lucina Uddin the Linda Spear Mid-Career Award winner, and we cannot wait to see what she accomplishes next!


Arielle S Keller, PhD

Arielle S Keller, PhD

Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania

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