Learning a new technique, investigating preliminary data with another method, starting a collaboration, or experiencing a different research environment. There can be many advantages to completing short stays or internships in another lab, including benefits for the career development of individual researchers, as well as the advancement of research as a whole, thanks to the promotion of the exchange of scientific ideas and expertise. 

With the aim of supporting early career researchers, IBRO Exchange Fellowships and FENS/IBRO-PERC Exchange Fellowships offer fellows support to cover travel and local expenses while they conduct goal-directed lab visits. We asked 2022 IBRO Exchange Fellow Alba Peris-Yague, a PhD candidate at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Spain, about her experience as a visiting PhD scholar at the University of Cambridge, UK.  

Could you tell us what your PhD research is about?

I am doing my PhD in a clinical neuroscience lab, where I study memory and perception in humans with electrophysiology. I work with patients that have medication-resistant epilepsy and need to go into surgery. Before surgery, the patients get electrodes implanted in the brain to record where the origin of the epileptic seizures is. As researchers, we can go to the hospital and run a number of cognitive tests that allow us to study different functions. In my PhD project, that is with the specific goal of studying the role of the medial temporal lobes in memory and perception. I came to the UK, to Cambridge, to do an fMRI study as a follow up to this electrophysiology study.

Do you compare patients with epilepsy to healthy individuals?

We don’t really study anything epilepsy related. We actually work with this group of people because they’re very unique: they are one of the few people that have intracranial electrodes implanted. So instead of using scalp EEG (electroencephalography) or MEG (magnetoencephalography), which are other electrophysiology techniques, we can measure direct brain activity with intracranial EEG (iEEG).

And you wanted to go to Cambridge to learn a new technique?

I wanted to replicate the results we had found using electrophysiology with a different neuroimaging technique that I hoped could be a little bit more accessible, because working with human electrophysiology limits you to working with a very niche group of patients. So sometimes it’s difficult to collect data, or have enough patients with electrodes in the brain regions you’re interested in. Doing fMRI was an opportunity to learn a new technique and use it to firstly see whether we could replicate our previous results, but also to expand our research.

Alba Peris-Yague at the fMRI facility in Cambridge < 

Is there a particular reason you went to Cambridge?

The reason that I came here was because my supervisor at home, Bryan Strange, and my supervisor here in the UK, Rik Henson, had collaborated before, many years ago. My supervisor here is a leading researcher in the field of fMRI and memory, so it was an amazing opportunity to be able to come here and learn directly from him.

How are you finding working in another lab and the social part of the exchange?

It’s been super nice! I am at MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and everyone is very nice and welcoming. There are always talks and workshops going on, on various topics related to cognitive neuroscience, which have been very interesting and useful. It’s also been really nice because I share an office with people who are working on different topics to me, so it has been interesting to hear about other ongoing research and meet people with different views and expertise. 

How different is the British lab from your lab in Madrid?

In Madrid, the structure of the building is quite different. Here they tried to have PhD students from different labs in the same office. Whereas in Madrid, I only interact with people from my lab. So, it’s a lot easier to meet people here and be exposed to new ideas and get different points of view. Also, in Cambridge, there is, or they try very hard to have, a flat hierarchical structure, which makes it accessible to talk to postdocs and other PIs. And here there’s a lot of opportunities for training and a lot of emphasis on learning about the methods that you’re trying to use, which is really important.

How has the IBRO Exchange Fellowship helped you? 

As a PhD student, there aren’t that many sources of funding available for exchanges. The cool thing about this fellowship is that it can be used for longer research visits and provides a more generous amount than other grants, which is really helpful. I was super happy when I got the IBRO Exchange Fellowship because I thought it was “my only shot at getting enough funding that would let me come here”. Otherwise, I don’t know if I would have been able to come. 

Do you remember how you found the application process? 

It was pretty straightforward! I had to write an introduction to the project and a summary of my current results, as well as my research plan as well as I needed a couple of letters of recommendation. Also, something else that was very nice is that I didn’t need to be accepted by the center where I wanted to complete the internship before applying, I just needed both of my supervisors’ support, which, again, gives you a bit more flexibility during the application process. 

 Do you have any recommendations for future applicants for this fellowship? 

I would say being concise is good, as is having a clear plan. I would encourage applicants to contact their potential supervisor in advance and ensure that they have their support. This is a really good opportunity, so it’s worth giving it a go, and sharing the call with other people who may be interested, because it’s something that I didn’t find so easily. The moment that I found it, it was like I saw the light, you know? 

Join Alba Peris-Yague: apply for an IBRO Exchange Fellowship if you are based in Asia-Pacific or Latin America, or for a FENS/IBRO-PERC Exchange Fellowship if you work in Europe. Applications for the two current open calls for Exchange Fellowships are open until 15 April 2023.


If you are an IBRO awardee and would like to share your experience, contact IBRO Communications Manager, Carolina Araujo Sousa, at communications@ibro.org.