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Ph.D. interview - Oscar Manouchehrian

Oscar Manouchehrian out in the snow and a picture on his thesis cover. Photo collage.
Oscar Manouchehrian defends his thesis on the 13th of May 2022.

Oscar Manouchehrian has explored the roles of exercise and inflammation in neurological disorders. On May 13, he defends his Ph.D. thesis. Here, he shares his insights into academic research and experiences as a Ph.D. student in the Experimental Neuroinflammation Laboratory at MultiPark.

Tell us about your research!

My research engagement has been broad during my research education. For example, I have investigated the effect of age and sex on outcomes after focal brain ischemia and how inflammation affects the flux of cerebrospinal fluid. Zooming out from these very specific projects and mechanisms, the common denominators of all projects have been exercise and inflammation in mouse models of neurological diseases.

What is the essential finding you have made during your thesis work?

Those who read my thesis will notice that most of the data I present is negative data, experiments where we have not detected any differences between treatment groups. At first sight, this may look discouraging, but I am convinced that this is my major contribution to research; to demonstrate that it is possible to counteract the publication bias by putting effort into reporting well-conducted experiments without any detectable differences. Moreover, even if you only try to replicate what has been shown before, I think it is important to communicate when it is not working as expected. Many scientists have warned about a replication crisis in research. Thus, I believe that replicating findings should be valued higher to encourage people to do it. Replication is the basis of knowledge. Only reporting a single observation does not allow for robust conclusions, and without solid ground, we risk wasting recourses on testing hypotheses dammed to fail. Not taking this seriously is to build on a house of cards.  

Do you think this choice to spend time on reporting negative results may impair your future academic career?

I haven't really thought of it in that way. Maybe a bit, it is always easier to sell a promising story to a future employer or funder than a negative one. Still, I have no real choice because I think it is my duty as a scientist to communicate studies that are not working out as expected. Otherwise, researchers at other universities may sacrifice a lot of experimental animals for no reason, not to speak about time and other recourses that are scarce.

I have heard that your thesis cover represents many things for you. Please, tell us about it!

The cover shows the handles of two rowing machines on a wrestling carpet with drops of sweat. The most evident is that it visualizes the exercise I study in two of my projects. As a Ph.D. student, I have also spent a significant amount of time on the rowing machines at the BMC gym. There is also where I first met my supervisor, Tomas. The sweat drops show the demanding nature of both rowing and Ph.D. education. Further, the handles look like a bar diagram in which the mean values in the two bars do not differ, just as in many of my results. The new and older handles may represent the innate and adaptive immune systems or age as a factor, all of which I investigate in my studies.

How did you end up at MultiPark?

To make a long story short, I was initially a Ph.D. student in an Ophthalmology lab here on the same floor. I discovered that my supervisor had committed research fraud and reported it, so I couldn't stay in that group. After my former supervisor was convicted of research fraud by the University, I got an extension to complete a new Ph.D project in Tomas' group, which I feel very grateful for. This is how I ended up in MultiPark, which I am also thankful for; it is a great network.

What have you enjoyed the most during your research education at MultiPark?

The scientific broadness; the mixture of different diseases and representation from experimental and clinical sciences. Also, the recurrent social interactions through lunch seminars and events and the encouragement to attend conferences, to mention some more examples. However, I still wished our research area could include more neurological disorders with exciting research going on in the building, such as epilepsy or meningitis.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your Ph.D.?

This is nothing unique to me, but I think I suffer from imposter syndrome every now and then, especially the past few months as my defense approaches. It is hard to know exactly what you are supposed to learn and to what depth you should be able to respond to a question. In my case, I think this feeling of not knowing enough is worsened because of the broadness of my dissertation. But in the end, I am aware that it is just a common feeling in this situation.

And the most rewarding?

It feels a bit cliché, but I have to say the freedom. To have the possibility to try out your hypotheses in a friendly environment with stimulating colleagues to interact with is a great pleasure.

Do you think that you take advantage of the opportunity to be creative and try your hypotheses?

Yes. Maybe not for the first studies, but during the last two in my thesis, I was actively involved in the planning and the one initiating collaborations with another group.

What do you like to do when you are not at work?

Most of my time goes to studying. I study veterinary medicine in Copenhagen when I am not occupied with my research education. Of course, this takes the vast majority of my "free time," but it has been a good investment of time since that has contributed to feeling more confident that I get broad knowledge at the organism level. Before taking up these studies, I lacked a holistic perspective. 

What advice do you want to give to new Ph.D. students?

Broaden your knowledge at an early stage. Don't rush into your first study! Take your time to read through the literature in your field before starting. This is particularly important if you are working with experimental animals, as your projects very likely always cause suffering. It is not ethically defensible to use animals just to get a Ph.D. or to climb your career ladder.

In your thesis, you bring up issues in research education. Could you summarize your insights?

It all goes back to what I said before about using experimental animals in a thoughtful way and your duty as a scientist to report negative data. Additionally, I bring up the incompatible incentives of a Ph.D. student and the supervisor. Here, I can only speak about how it works at LU. Briefly, LU requires you to have at least one published first-author paper and one more publication to defend your thesis. This implies that you need to conduct quite fast and straightforward projects which will not be publishable in high-impact journals. On the other side is your supervisor, with a desperate need for high-impact papers to secure funding. This discrepancy certainly creates poor conditions for a healthy working environment and friendly collegial relationships. Personally, I have been blessed with an understanding supervisor, but I have several friends experiencing unnecessary conflicts because of this system.

What happens after your defense?

I have three years left of my veterinary studies. In parallel, I plan to stay as a hang-around in our lab and participate as much as my schedule allows me.

More about Oscar Manouchehrian's thesis

Oscar Manouchehrian will defend his Ph.D. thesis titled "Exercise and inflammation in neurodegenerative disease" in BMC I1345 in Lund on May 13 at 09:00.

Read more about the event in the calendar.

Follow the defense via zoom: https://lu-se.zoom.us/j/63472598780  

Read the Ph.D. thesis "Exercise and inflammation in neurodegenerative disease".

 

Fast five with Oscar Manouchehrian

Family:

My sambo Marta. Parents and two older siblings.

Hobbies:

Grappling and exercise in general (RowErg and SkiErg!), as well as nature and animals.

Best time of your day:

I am most productive during wolf hours, but at the same time, I feel bad about still being awake at that time, so I enjoy getting up at sunrise more.

Best conference:                                              

The Neuroinflammation summer school in the south of Spain in 2018.

Need help with:

My Danish and Spanish skills.

Oscar Manouchehrian out in the snow skiing. Photo.

Oscar Manouchehrian

Ph.D. student in the Experimental Neuroinflammation Laboratory

oscar [dot] manouchehrian [at] med [dot] lu [dot] se

Link to Oscar Manouchehrian's profile in the LU Research Portal