Dr Sook-Lei Liew is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California (USC), where she leads the Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory and co-directs the USC SensoriMotor Assessment and Rehabilitation Training in Virtual Reality Center. Dr Liew completed her undergraduate studies at Rice University before joining USC for her Master and her PhD. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH and periods spent at the University of Tübingen and at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she returned to California.
Qiyun Wu) Which stage of your career (undergraduate/ master/ PhD/postdoctoral fellow /Assistant Professor) do you find most interesting, and which one is most challenging?
I think the most interesting stage of my career was during my PhD because that was when I really started to learn to ask scientific questions and formulate hypotheses and develop my own body of research. It was a great time where my primary focus was on learning and developing new skills, which I think is always super fun. The most challenging stage of my career has probably been as an Assistant Professor so far, mostly because it is quite a big transition from being a “student/trainee” to finally becoming the “group leader.” Becoming a lab director and an assistant professor is a lot like running a start-up – you have to figure out budgets and finances, hiring and personnel management, physical lab space decisions, and more, while still maintaining (and growing) your science! It has been a very rewarding experience to learn all of these skills, but to date, there aren’t great training programs to really prepare you for all the decisions you have to make once you make the transition.
Emre Yavuz) What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career so far? Are there decisions you have made and which you regret now?
The biggest challenge is the first few years of transitioning from postdoc to assistant professor. For most of my career, I was a trainee, and big decisions were made by my mentors. Then, I became an assistant professor, and suddenly I was faced with so many decisions, many of which I was not sure how to make or what the consequences of the decisions would be. Even seemingly small things like what furniture to buy, how many desks, and what color paint on the walls were things that I could not be sure of since I didn’t know how many people would be in my lab, etc. Hiring and managing people was probably the most challenging of all my decisions. While I don’t regret any decisions, I do think that I now approach hiring and management differently than I did when I first started.
Emre Yavuz) How did technology impact your research field? What are the most significant technological advancements that allowed you to excel in your area?
Technology is very critical for my field! The emergence of tons of great free software libraries for big data analyses has made our big data brain imaging work much more feasible. The commercial availability of high-quality virtual reality systems has also made our virtual reality (VR) work feasible. The constant improvements in low-cost sensors have allowed us to make home-based biofeedback a reality. Even just five years ago, the laptop we needed to use with the VR system weighed about 10 pounds and was $3000. Now VR systems don’t even need to be attached to computers, and if so, we can get a high-performance laptop that’s 3 pounds for $1200 or less. It’s very fun to see technology improve over time.
Joanna Vamvakopoulou) What were the biggest challenges you faced while implementing virtual reality and using such technology with patients?
The biggest challenges are just the technical ones of using VR, which has been getting a lot better over time, but initially it sometimes doesn’t run or shuts down or won’t connect. The hardest part of implementing your own software is that there are always bound to be glitches since we are a research lab, versus a whole company dedicated to building VR software. However, I believe we’ve gotten better at this over time, and it will continue to improve as the technology improves!
Sylvana Vilca-Melendez) Your research has a clear clinical relevance: how do you handle the emotional impact of seeing individuals with stroke and, more generally, with neurological disorders?
Interacting with individuals with stroke is the most rewarding part of this work! Admittedly, there is some selection bias since people who participate in our research studies tend to be super friendly and happy to learn and help us with our research. But we are so grateful for them, and it always amazes me how resilient they are. Most of them have come up with all sorts of neat adaptations to be able to do what matters to them again. The emotional impact has been a positive one, and I think most people in my lab would agree that getting to interact with the patients is the best part of the job. We are especially rewarded when we are able to help them get better a bit or give them an experience they really enjoy.
Joanna Vamvakopoulou) What advice would you give your younger self when choosing to follow a career in research and academia?
When I was younger, I mostly liked to read books and play sports! Because of that, I double-majored in English and Sports Medicine in college. However, if I could do it again, I would have majored in Biomedical Engineering (and maybe also Sports Medicine), so I could have learned the technical skills I use now in a more formalized manner. Instead, I had to teach myself (using online resources and a lot of trial and error), but I wish I had gotten these skills earlier on. On the other hand, being an English major was great for my writing, and there is a lot more writing in a scientific academic career than one would think, so I don’t really regret it!
Sylvana Vilca-Melendez) What would be your piece of advice to young scientists who are trying to find the research field they are interested in?
My best advice is to volunteer and be willing to do what needs to be done, even if it is boring at first. I got started by volunteering in a research lab, and the best way to learn is to take on relatively simple tasks at first, like data entry, and then working your way up from there. For instance, in my first few research experiences, I spent many, many hours manually entering data, organizing lab supplies, manually segmenting brain regions and more. But those were extremely valuable learning experiences. Also, while I did that to contribute to the lab, I was able to learn a lot from what everyone else was doing. Over time, after I showed that I could be trusted with simpler tasks, I was given more responsibility. and allows you to learn the whole research process in an approachable manner.
Maja Wojtynska) Science is becoming an increasingly competitive field. Do you have any advice on any specific skills (computational, soft skills etc.) we could obtain to gain a competitive edge?
For my lab, we prioritize students who have experience with computer programming. We also look favourably on people who have volunteered in research labs already for at least a year or so, because the expectation is that if you’ve been in a lab for a year already, you probably have a decent idea of what you’re getting yourself into! And, if your mentor/advisor that you’ve worked with over time provides a strong letter of recommendation, then that also helps a lot.
Maja Wojtynska) Who is the scientist you admire the most and why?
I have a lot of science heroes! The people I admire the most are probably the ones that I know and have worked with personally because I know they are not only great scientists but also great people. I am very grateful to have had several mentors and colleagues that I’ve had the pleasure of learning from and working with who clearly love the science they do. This is evidenced by their deep knowledge of the topic, their ability to ask probing questions and their excitement when talking about a new scientific idea, and their ability to provide critical feedback that makes my own science better. I am sure everyone knows a few people like this, but they make being a scientist such a pleasure.
Qiyun Qiyun) How is COVID-19 affecting your working routine? If the changes you have observed are beneficial/convenient, will you continue implementing them?
In my lab, part of our research was data analysis and another part was collecting data with participants. Since the shutdown due to COVID-19, we have only had very limited data collection. Instead, we’ve been focusing more on data analysis, and doing as much as we can remotely (e.g., taking the time to build out a new hardware/software platform for home-based muscle biofeedback for people with stroke). I believe once it is allowed and safe, we will resume in-person research with participants again. However, it’s been great for thinking more deeply about what our exact research questions and hypotheses are in preparation for eventual data collection. We also have been using software for daily communication more, and each day, each member of the lab posts a work goal for the day, as well as something they’ll do to take care of themselves (e.g., a self-care activity, like exercising, reading a good book). That’s been fun to just see everyone’s daily updates and is likely something we’ll keep up for the future. Another nice thing has been the ability to have meetings and conferences with colleagues worldwide since virtual meetings have replaced in-person meetings. While I do miss in-person meetings and interactions, I also hope that we can keep up virtual meetings since they allow us to communicate with colleagues all over with a lot less time spent on travel!