Dr. Julie Robillard is an assistant professor of Neurology at the University of British Columbia, member of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and a Scientist in Patient Experience at BC Children’s Hospital and Women’s Hospital + Health Centre.

Her lab, the Neuroscience, Engagement and Smart Tech (NEST), conducts research on current and emerging technologies that support brain health. The NEST team works to better understand how social technologies like robots or social media can support the mental health of children, adolescents and families. Dr. Robillard’s group also investigates patient experience at BC Children’s more broadly, with a focus on finding how it can be improved.

In advance of International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, we chatted with Dr. Robillard to learn more about her academic journey and current research projects.

Early life and inspiration

I was lucky to grow up in a household that nurtured my curiosity for the natural world and encouraged me to seek a career that would challenge me and allow me to pursue my interests. My PhD training was in the biological basis of learning and memory, and a big role model for me was Dr. Brenda Milner – a Canadian neuropsychologist who, in the 1950s, was invited to study H.M., the most famous patient in cognitive neuroscience. Her work with H.M. and others led to landmark discoveries in how memories are stored and processed in the brain and her major contributions shaped our understanding of brain function and organization. She is now 104 and still conducting research at McGill University. I find that lifelong quest for knowledge to be incredibly inspiring. I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2014 and it was a defining moment for me.

While Dr. Milner was one particular example, one of the amazing things about being part of the community at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute is that I am surrounded by role models.

“Every day I learn and grow by interacting with enthusiastic trainees at all levels, as well as dedicated and creative research staff, engaged patients, families and health-care providers, and impact-driven faculty.”

The brain as the final frontier

My schooling background was all in Québec — right up until the end of my bachelor’s degree — where there is a mandatory two-year program called the College of General and Professional Teaching (CÉGEP), between high school and university. For me, this program was incredibly helpful, because it gave me the opportunity to meet faculty with research experience before I had to make a decision about my undergraduate program.

I had terrific instructors in math and biology, and fell in love with the scientific method. What I found most interesting was how much you could learn from an experiment that failed! This led to my choice of biological sciences for my undergraduate degree.

Early on during my bachelor’s, I became fascinated by the brain. It seemed to me like the last frontier, the one piece of the human code we just couldn’t crack. I ended up learning how to conduct electrophysiology experiments in Dr. Trudeau’s lab at Université de Montréal and my newfound love of neuroscience really grew into my career path. There was something so incredibly exciting about watching electrical signals from brain cells communicating with each other and being able to contribute to our understanding of how that happens.

From there, I went on to do a PhD in neuroscience with Dr. Brian MacVicar at UBC. There, I experimented with cutting-edge techniques to further my expertise. During these PhD years, I became interested in the gap between the work I was doing in the lab and how the knowledge I was generating was used in the real world. This led me to explore research fields at the intersection of neuroscience and society. As my interests evolved to include translational work, I went on to study neuroethics under the supervision of Dr. Judy Illes at Neuroethics Canada, who happens to be a tireless advocate for women in science and engineering.

Using technology to support brain health

Currently, some of the projects we are excited about look at how people across the lifespan use different social technologies, from social media platforms to social robots, to support their brain health. We want to better understand the emotions involved in our relationship with social technologies and explore questions like “how does it feel to share about your mental health on social media?” or “how much emotion is appropriate to exchange with a therapy robot?”.

We use approaches that combine qualitative methods where we engage closely with participants, quantitative analyses of online content, and predictive models to inform social technology design. The work in the NEST is transdisciplinary by design: we answer our research questions through engagement with patients and families, engineers, roboticists, ethicists, and a wide range of health care providers, to name a few!

Advice for others

My advice for others would be to take every opportunity to network with people from a wide range of backgrounds. You never know when you’ll cross paths with someone who will become a major influence in your journey, or who might inspire you to take a particular direction you hadn’t expected.

A version of this story was originally published on the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute’s website.