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BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

Faculty Profile: Dr. Iris Balodis, PhD

Author: Anna Froude

Dr. Iris Balodis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University, and one of the supervising faculty in the Neuroscience Graduate Program. She is also Associate Director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research, located at St. Joseph's West 5th campus in Hamilton.

Can you share a bit about your academic career? How did you become interested in addiction research?

I’ve always been interested in understanding why and how we make decisions. What made you decide to wear that shirt? Why did he buy those shoes even though he can’t afford them? Why did I eat that cake after I said I was determined to lose weight?

We often choose things that aren’t in our own best interest or behave in ways that contradict what we say. I’m very interested in understanding why there is this disconnect between our actions and our desires. Addiction represents an extreme form of this disconnect. In my research I can use different tools – neuropsychological tasks, neuroimaging and other methodologies that tap into implicit and explicit processes to better understand what motivates our behaviour and the choices that we make.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

The variety in activities is what I enjoy the most about research. One day I could be reading about a topic that I’m interested in, the next day I could be discussing the logistics of running a research study with a team of colleagues. Another day, I could be at a conference learning about cutting-edge research, while later that same day I could be meeting with students and talking about their projects.

The level of variety in activities that my research provides me with also allows for the opportunity to speak with different levels of the government regarding new policy/regulation changes, or to learn from clinicians about their front-line experiences, teach a class, speak with journalists about a research topic, evaluate a scholarship application, or even work with animators to develop a cartoon about the brain!

What is something you wish you knew when you first started graduate school?

There are so many things! I didn’t realize how many ‘hats’ I would wear and the different roles I would have to take on. In graduate school, you often learn a specific research technique, but as you move on in your career, you move away from the bench and are less in touch with the things you initially developed proficiency in – instead you take on new roles as a teacher, mentor, reviewer, accountant, research manager, advisor, strategist, administrator, or research director.

What advice would you give to students that are considering pursuing graduate school?

Take breaks and do other things! If you can, take some time off before graduate school and travel, try different jobs, and develop other interests.

Figure out: What do you do when you’re free of necessity? I have a friend who was extremely successful, but when she got her PhD all she wanted to do was take time off and travel. Unfortunately, she couldn’t take time off anymore – she had a great job offer and she couldn’t give that up at that point.

Also, take the time to make sure that you are really interested in pursuing graduate school. Often, coming straight from undergraduate studies, you only see one path: more school. I have another friend who loved running studies, but hated writing… unfortunately for her, writing is really a core part of what we do as academics and it is impossible to get around.

Now, time for some fun questions! As a child, what was your favourite subject in school? Why?

As a really young child, I liked most subjects in an undifferentiated way because I was quite nerdy! Music, languages, sciences, geography, history – all great. My least favourite subject stands out – gym. I was always picked last for teams.

What is one thing you can't live without?

If you weren’t working in academia, what do you think you would be doing?

After a scary first week of grad school, I remember a bunch of my friends and I getting together and discussing other career alternatives: chef, lawyer, customs agent… I think I said writer. Now, I know I would be a sketch comedy writer!

Thank you for your time, Dr. Balodis!