Career Profile: Justin Ruppel, Lab Manager & Musician
Recently, we interviewed Justin Ruppel, a lab manager and research assistant at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Toronto and a musician, who has performed around Toronto and toured North America. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Human Biology at the University of Toronto, he worked in labs at Mount Sinai Hospital, The Hospital for Sick Children, and conducted research involving functional magnetic resonance imaging at The University of Toronto. Justin has co-authored 6 papers in psychology and cognition.
Justin has also pursued his passion for music by studying drums and percussion at the Humber College music program and studying privately with the likes of Steve Mancuso, Bob MacLaren, Jim Blackley, and Al Cross. Justin has performed at many festivals including the WayHome Music Festival, The Toronto TD Jazz Festival, the New Orleans French Quarter Festival and the Mariposa Folk Festival. Additionally, he has opened for Sam Roberts, Dallas Smith, Sylvia Tyson, and The Proclaimers.
In our interview, Justin shares advice for aspiring musicians and scientists, his definition of success and important habits to develop.
PK: What is cognitive neuroscience?
JR: Cognitive neuroscience is a multidisciplinary science that aims to understand the biological process underlying thought and cognition. Cognitive neuroscience examines every facet of behavior, emotion, and decision-making. It tries to connect physiological structures and biological processes in the brain and nervous system to human behavior and thought. Cognitive neuroscientists come from diverse backgrounds- some have studied biology while others have a computational or physics background.
PK: Tell us about your path to becoming a lab manager and musician.
JR: I have always been curious about human behavior. People behave in such beautiful, odd, and fascinating ways. I think I was always drawn to any information that could explain why. In my first year psychology class, I grew even more curious about attempts to break down and demystify parts of human behavior by looking at the biology of the brain. This curiosity naturally piqued an interest in research.
I first got involved in research through an undergraduate research course, in which I received credit for working in a lab. Then, I applied for and received a NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award for summer research. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I was always involved in research in some capacity.
At the same time, I was performing music with friends in Toronto. I had always played music as a kid, but growing up in a small town, I wasn’t aware that a world existed for working musicians. When I came to Toronto, I lived in residence with a lot of music students and was exposed to an incredible caliber of musicianship.
Music became important for my well-being and once I finished my degree, I took stock of how to balance music and science moving forward. In music, I believe it’s crucial to log a certain number of practice hours early on in life. Given this limited time window and my growing attachment to performing, I thought I would regret not taking the time to explore music properly. So, I rolled the dice, auditioned for Humber’s music program and was accepted.
After 3 years of music school, I did an assessment of where I was at and what I wanted to do. I realized that I didn’t want to completely leave research, so I reached out to some of the labs I’d worked for in undergrad. It turned out Dr. Ferber was looking for a part time lab manager. This was a perfect fit because I enjoyed my past experience working for her and was interested in the research focus of her lab.
Besides working in the Ferber Lab, I am also an independent free-lance musician; I play in some bands, do recording, touring and some teaching.
PK: What are the most rewarding and most challenging experiences you’ve had as a research scientist?
JR: Science is a cumulative process. Many labs around the world are studying seemingly small, insignificant things, but collectively this work builds and contributes to a history of knowledge. I like being part of this collective process.
Perhaps, the most rewarding experience is seeing the graduate students I work with reach milestones and succeed. It’s phenomenal to see the development of their careers as they learn to conduct their own experiments, publish papers, and land jobs.
The challenges associated with research are the many setbacks and the many failed experiments you inevitably encounter. There’s a delay of gratification, and sometimes, there aren’t many short-term rewards built in to academia. You have to be willing to push through long periods of what seems like failure and inactivity to get to the successful studies.
Another general challenge is that the field of cognitive neuroscience is quite young; the roots aren’t as deep as physics, chemistry, or calculus, which have been studied for hundreds of years. Certain aspects of the field can be frustrating, like the limits of its methodology. It’s hard to study the living brain in precise detail when we’re limited to indirect methods of study.
PK: Do you have any general advice for aspiring researchers or musicians?
JR: The best piece of advice I received came from a well-respected psychology professor in my third and fourth year of undergrad. He told my class that if we didn’t actually enjoy the daily grind of research and if we were solely focused on end results, we were making a huge mistake entering this field. He used himself as example, claiming that he had never cared about the hundreds of papers he’d authored, his status in the field, or getting flown in to speak at conferences. He simply liked the day-to-day, trivial tasks of going into the lab, designing experiments, and working with his students. To enjoy the process of your work is common advice, but it was very meaningful and impactful coming from someone so successful when I was at such a young and impressionable age.
Another piece of general advice is this: move towards things that make you feel uncomfortable. Now, I don’t mean this in a daredevil-do-dangerous-feats sense. But if you’re nervous about presenting at a conference, or participating in a workshop that you feel ill-equipped for, it’s probably the next logical step to take career-wise. Take your own built-in resistance and anxiety as a sign that this is something that can help you grow.
Another important piece of advice is learning how to recover from failure. In research, there are a lot of setbacks. You have to learn how to assess your work and determine what changes need to be made. And in some situations, you also need to accept that there won’t be a clear explanation for why something didn’t work and move on to the next idea. You have to learn to accept the uncertainty and learn to react to these setbacks in a light-hearted way.
PK: What specific advice do you have for aspiring science students?
JR: Access the resources and opportunities available to you. It’s important to get involved as early as you can to understand what research entails. Try volunteering in a lab, doing a work-study, or chatting with or shadowing someone in the field you’re interested in.
It’s also important to get experience in different labs, in many different disciplines in undergrad. It’s hard to get an idea of what you want to do in the future, unless you have some context for what the work is really like. And you can’t really get that experience in the classroom. Having many different lab experiences will help narrow your interests and provide you with a taste of what it’s like to pursue a PhD for the next 6 years, and then the following 40 years as a researcher. These experiences will help determine the career path you will pursue.
On a more practical level, for anyone interested in cognitive neuroscience, an in-depth knowledge of computers and programming is essential. It’s very difficult to get through neuroscience without writing your own scripts and knowing a few coding languages. Most of the technology employed by cognitive neuroscience, such as electroencephalography and magnetic resonance imaging, are programmed by physicists and computer scientists. You may not necessarily have to understand the physics in great detail, but you do need to understand and use the software that analyzes this data. You need to be able to read and speak computer languages, which is not intuitively known because most people enter this field with an interest in human behavior and psychology rather than computers.
PK: Where do you see cognitive neuroscience in the next 5, 10 years? Were there any groundbreaking breakthroughs this past year?
JR: In terms of methodology, researchers are using machine learning and computational neuroscience techniques to look at patterns of activity in the brain to better understand and analyze neural networks. Understanding the intricacies and connectivity of these networks will continue to be a main focus of the field for some time.
As far as interesting studies, there was a study in 2015 out of the University of California Irvine, in which a group of scientists worked with a man who was paralyzed from the waist down. They connected an electroencephalography cap on his head to electrodes delivering electrical impulses to the muscles in his legs. In a series of trials in which he simply imagined motion in his mind, he was able to achieve some movement in legs and was able to walk 12 steps with support. It’s a hallmark study that is both heartwarming and also a very clever application of some basic neuroscience research.
PK: How do you define success and what are your metrics?
JR: Success is such a loaded term- in a vocational sense, personal sense, and financial sense. For a textbook definition, I would say success comes from a deep, personal contentment that arises from meaningful occupation, one that hopefully benefits and improves the lives of other people.
But, practically speaking, I think for most people there will always be a component of social comparison. It’s natural to measure where you are based on where others in the field are. That’s of course fraught with danger, but I don’t know if anyone can really resist that compulsion.
For me, I try to be realistic about what I need to improve upon, what is meaningful for me to work on, and not consider the idea of success too much. Whenever I hit one tier, my sight is set on the next.
PK: What habits/ mindsets are important to develop?
JR: There are some obvious ones, like hard work. Other skills include prioritizing, and assessing which information is important. No matter what field you’re in, there is more information available to you than you can possible absorb, so you need to identify what is relevant to you and what needs attention. It’s similar to undergraduate classes, where you’re given more information than can possibly be tested. You need to learn to filter out the inessential information and focus on what is important as well as what is interesting and meaningful to you.
Only recently, I have started to formally schedule things and create routines. After reading interviews with many writers, composers, musicians, I realized there’s a ritual to creative or disciplined work; you can’t wait for the muse to visit you. Currently, I’m trying to make writing and practicing more of a formal habit by spelling out more concrete goals. If I say I’m going to practice tomorrow morning, that’s an easy goal to break because it’s vague. But if I put in detail exactly what I want to practice tomorrow from 8 AM-10 AM, then I’m more likely to follow through on this. I used to think this sort of scheduling would interfere with the creative process, but I’ve learned over the years that it’s very effective and used by many musicians and scientists.
Cultivating a certain mindset is also important, especially one where you can see any situation as comical and through a light-hearted lens. This mindset is essential for weathering failure. You can get through most challenging experiences more easily if you try to find the funny in them.
You can follow Justin’s adventures on Twitter.