Ahmad Samara is a PhD student in Dr. Tamara Vanderwal‘s lab and one of UBC’s newest “Friedman Scholar”. As a Friedman Award for Scholars in Health recipient, Ahmad will study for one year in the lab of Dr. Uri Hasson at Princeton University, where he will be able to expand his expertise in using naturalistic conditions to study functional brain development, while bringing new perspectives to his education and furthering his career. We caught up with Ahmad to learn more about his research, interests and plans as a Friedman Scholar.

Why did you decide to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience?
My fascination with the human brain peaked as a medical student. As I observed the complex ways in which neurological and psychiatric disorders manifest, I developed an interest in studying the underlying mechanisms of brain function. Pursuing a graduate degree in neuroscience seemed like the natural next step for me. I feel very fortunate that I ended up working with my supervisor, Dr. Tamara Vanderwal. After learning about her research on the use of movie-fMRI to study brain function and identify clinically relevant neural patterns, any doubts about my decision disappeared. I view the opportunity to do PhD research as a privilege and a way to channel my interests and perspective into advancing our understanding of the brain and improving brain health.

What is the main research focus of your thesis?
Neuroscientists study brain function often through highly controlled experimental manipulations. However, models derived from such designs fail to capture the complexity of real-world contexts. My PhD thesis is focused on the use of naturalistic conditions such as movie-watching to map the large-scale functional organization of the brain under complex, dynamic conditions. Specifically, I am using movie-fMRI and advanced analytical and computational methods to identify large-scale functional gradients of human cortical organization during naturalistic processing, and to investigate the development of these gradients in children and adolescents and how they relate to social and cognitive development.

What is your favourite thing about neuroscience and the GPN program?
My favourite thing about neuroscience is its interdisciplinary nature. My research often requires me to delve into other fields and acquire a wide range of skills. The multitude of activities that my PhD student role involves keeps me constantly engaged. Moreover, neuroscience is a rapidly advancing field, and being part of the GPN program allows me to stay at the forefront of new advancements in the field. My favourite thing about the GPN is the supportive research community and the collaborative learning environment it provides. I’m always curious about the work of other researchers here at UBC, which makes me appreciate the numerous scientific and social events the program regularly organizes.

What do you hope to learn during your time as a visiting student to Dr. Uri Hasson’s lab?
Getting to spend a year of my PhD training at Dr. Uri Hasson’s lab is a dream come true thanks to the Friedman Award for Scholars in Health. Through this opportunity, I hope to learn more about machine learning applications in neuroimaging research, expand my knowledge of naturalistic behavioural assessments, gain experience with different imaging modalities and types of signal processing, and learn to apply advanced analytical approaches to different types of neuroimaging data.

What are your career goals after completing your degree?
After completing my degree, I hope to continue doing research as a postdoc. I am particularly interested in exploring how naturalistic neuroimaging paradigms can be used to develop biomarkers for brain disorders.