Interview with MRRI Postdoc Dr. Simon Thibault

Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI) was pleased to welcome Simon Thibault, PhD, in January of 2022. Since joining the Institute, Dr. Thibault has been working with Institute Scientists Aaron Wong, PhD, and Laurel Buxbaum, PsyD, to further his training and his scientific research. In this interview, Dr. Thibault shares more about his career and his work.

1) Can you tell us more about your academic background and training?

I did my studies in France with my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Sports and Human Movement Sciences at the University of Nantes. In Nantes, I became interested in research quite early, and I was at that time mentored by Dr. Thibault Deschamps. Afterwards, I did a 5-month postgraduate internship at the University of Queensland in Australia in Dr. Timothy Carroll’s lab which focuses on exercise science and motor control. My early research projects were related to the interaction between cognition and the motor system, or more general motor control projects. After this internship, I started my PhD at the University of Lyon under the supervision of Dr. Claudio Brozzoli and Dr. Alice Roy. During my PhD, I continued investigating interactions between cognition and the motor system, particularly focusing on the interaction between tool-use and language. I started my postdoc at MRRI about one year ago under the supervision of Dr. Aaron Wong and Dr. Laurel Buxbaum, and my current research projects are examining tool-use impairments in patients with neurological conditions such as stroke.

2) What attracted you to science?

I think I find science attractive because you work at the edge of current knowledge, and you can participate in extending this knowledge. I think that is the thing that excites me the most about science. Also, I like the fact that it requires me to learn and master multiple skills for various tasks, such as creating a new project from scratch, setting up a new experiment, analyzing data, and then sharing these results with the community through conferences or journal papers. More specifically, I have been particularly attracted to neuroscience because the brain is an intriguing part of our body, in which the mechanisms for many functions are still unclear. It is definitely exciting to be part of the research community trying to disentangle how this structure works.

3) Why did you choose to work at MRRI?

MRRI has given me the opportunity to pursue my main research interest in tool-use and complex motor behaviors (and how these motor functions interact with the cognitive system) by studying patients with apraxia. Apraxia occurs after a left-hemisphere cerebrovascular accident, and it impacts the actions of daily life, the use of tools, and complex motor behavior without apparent low-level sensorimotor deficits. For me, this is also a real opportunity to learn about the neuropsychological approach from experts in the field.

4) What are some of the research questions you are currently working to address?

Currently, I am working on determining what makes tools difficult to use for patients with apraxia. Dr. Wong, Dr. Buxbaum, and I think the degree to which the hand motion and tool tip motion differ makes these tools difficult to use for these patients. In parallel, I am planning to lead a project to better understand what makes it difficult for stroke patients (with or without apraxia) to perform an action sequence.

5) What have been some of the key findings of your research thus far?

During my PhD, I demonstrated that that tool-use abilities and syntactic abilities in language involved similar parts of the brain, and they reciprocally influence each other at the behavioral level. This finding has been of interest for a large community of scientists but also therapists because it introduces questions regarding whether patient populations with language or motor impairment may recover function by training the non-impaired ability (either language or motor function).

6) Can you tell us more about the impact or potential impact of your research?

Despite several years of research, apraxia is still a poorly understood deficit, and there are a lot of debates about what is really impaired in these patients and what the underlying mechanisms are. I hope my work will help to better clarify the underlying mechanisms, which could result in the development of new rehabilitation strategies to help these patients to cope with the difficulties they experience in their daily lives.

7) What is something that you have learned or hope to learn during your postdoc at MRRI?

Starting my postdoc at MRRI has been exciting and informative on many levels. First, I needed to familiarize myself with this novel environment and a new country. MRRI has a great environment for training and performing neuropsychological research thanks to the MRRI Research Registry. It has been interesting to learn more about how research is funded and conducted in the United States. Also, I was glad to gain experience working with patients. There are many considerations when conducting research with patient populations, and it is very different from working with neurotypical participants. By coming here, I hope to learn new skills, especially in grant-writing, to become a more independent researcher, as well as to gain new skills in neuroimaging analyses of patients’ data.

8) What is one of your favorite MRRI memories?

I would say the inclusion of the first patient in my study was a stressful but an exciting moment. Given some patients may have some language impairments, it is an additional challenge to make sure they can understand me with my (strong) French accent. However, most of them have been able to understand my instructions so far, and there is always a research assistant around that can help me handle more complex situations. I also have to acknowledge that I was particularly well trained by my advisors before this first patient inclusion to avoid these potentials misunderstandings.

9) What are your long-term career goals?

I would like to get a permanent research position in academia. Most likely, I will return to France for my next position, but I am open to any other interesting opportunities that may arise.

10) What do you like to do in your free time?

I am a big fan of sports, especially basketball, so I am happy to live in the U.S. where basketball is popular. I like to go to the 76ers games, and I also try to keep playing basketball at least once each week. In addition, I spend a lot of time with a group of French expats that are now my friends.

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