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MNS portrait #3 - Kenza El Houssaini
MNS portrait #3 - Kenza El Houssaini
Mathematical neuroscientist

Kenza is sitting at her desk in a postdoc office, crowded and without frills but filled with light, as typical for “La Timone” campus in downtown Marseille. On the screen of her computer plots of mathematical curves pop up, filled with complex trajectories whirling in phase space like tridimensional arabesques.

“These curves describe different behaviors of the so called ‘epileptor’ system”, explains to us Kenza. “Can you see how the trajectories change in shape when this parameter cross the ‘separatrix’ line? The epileptic seizure stops and cannot be generated anymore”. Kenza’s PhD in Mathematical Neuroscience, under the direction of Viktor Jirsa at the Institute for Systems Neuroscience (INS, Aix-Marseille University, southern France) cast light on the way in which brain circuits can enter and leave the epileptic state. “It must happen this way, independently from the exact biophysical mechanism, because there are universal mathematical principles which make very little room for alternatives”, elaborates Kenza. Her theoretical work, rigorous but rooted into experimental and clinical knowledge, will soon help designing disruptively new therapeutical approaches, optimized through virtual brain simulations.

Who are you, where are you from? Which education path did you follow?

 I introduce myself, I am Kenza El Houssaini, 31 years since a few days and I have a Moroccan nationality. I made my undergrad studies in Morocco, Casablanca, first a bachelor in Mathematics and then a master in Mathematics for Engineering sciences. I then obtained a PhD in computational Neuroscience in Marseille in 2014, under the direction of Dr. Viktor Jirsa.

What is your topic of research and what do you like into it?

With the time, while my intimate knowledge of the equations grew, I also started feeling emotionally attached to the model up to the point of referring to it as to “my” Epileptor.
My research focuses on the mathematical analysis of the epileptic dynamics of neural circuits (see e.g. here).

My thesis consisted into performing a very detailed analysis of a mathematical model of epilepsy, grounded on the theory of bifurcations and dynamical systems. This were among the topics I was most attracted from during my undergraduate studied in Mathematics and I enjoyed using these techniques for my PhD work, but now in the context of a concrete neuroscience problem.

My director, Viktor Jirsa, had started developing the Epileptor shortly before the beginning of my thesis. Of course, Dr. Jirsa could envision the dynamical richness of his mathematical model. But what really makes me proud is that I was the first to dissect the behavior of this model in full detail (even if with a good guide). As a “pioneer”, I could fully assume the challenge to unveil, systematically and with precision, the aspects potentially useful to understand –and, in perspective, control– the dynamics of epileptic seizures.

There was also a funny aspect. With the time, while my intimate knowledge of the equations grew, I also started feeling emotionally attached to the model up to the point of referring to it as to “my” Epileptor.

Was it difficult to get where you are? Any obstacle you met? How did you overcome this obstacles?

I was the first ever Moroccan scientist graduating with a thesis on the domain of computational neuroscience, which is a quite unique chance!
During my undergraduate studies, I had seen applications of dynamical systems to epidemiology. However COMPUTATIONAL neuroscience were a domain not really developed in Morocco. Discovering this novel field and starting to work into it was for me my first difficulty. Nevertheless, I consider this complete novelty another positive aspect of my research topic. By the way, during my PhD defense, my thesis committee made me aware if the fact that I was the first ever Moroccan scientist graduating with a thesis on the domain of computational neuroscience, which is a quite unique chance!

Another difficulty was my insufficient technical training, since we did not study bifurcation theory at a sufficient depth in Morocco. Nevertheless I quickly decided myself to reinforce my skills in order to overcome the difficulties, and I managed to do it.

The English language was a major difficulty too, because I had learnt only Spanish during my high school. In Morocco, one learns French as first foreign language, since primary school and then the teaching of a second foreign language is introduced at high school, usually English in science & technics oriented curricula. However, Morocco wanted to test in several high schools through the country –including unfortunately my one!– the teaching of Spanish instead of English. I do not know whether it is a matter of Fate or bad luck, but my classroom was the only one concerned by this unfortunate experimentation! I wish to thank you my director for having accepted that I initially made my oral presentations in French, with slides written in English. Through the repeated readings of articles and the listening of presentations in English I gradually started better mastering this language. In the last year of my PhD, I was brave enough to make my first presentation in English. It was a presentation of my PhD research in front of all institute members during our yearly retreat (yes, I was brave!). I received very nice and useful feedbacks and this is an experience I am proud of.

Finally, another difficulty was limited time. I think that this problem concerns a majority of graduate students but I want to stress it because it touched me profoundly. Preparing my manuscript in English took a very long time. My first oral test talk was just one week before defense, my last one, two days before. I had to go through several sleepless nights in order to complete my memoire! How did I overcome this? I usually do not cry for issues related to my work, but I did cry a lot in this final period of my PhD, because of physical and mental exhaustion. But I washed my tears and kept working hard and the manuscript was finally over. My family, my director, my lab colleagues supported and helped me a lot and I will always remember this.

Do you want to thank someone or something for helping you arriving where you are?

One cannot succeed in life without help. There are so many persons who helped me! I will cite only a few of them, without whom I could not be where I am now.

On the personal side: my parents and all my family. They encouraged me continuing my studies and enrolling the university and gave me the means to install myself in France during my PhD. My family really supported my free choice, without commenting and giving me full freedom. Believe me, not all the Moroccan families would give a similar freedom of choice, especially since I had even not yet had my 17-th birthday! I cannot mention all, but I will name at least my mother Amal and my grand-mother Hallouma. I will not forget then my father, although he quit this universe before the beginning of my PhD. I so strongly endorsed and exhorted me! He was so proud of me!

I could come back to Morocco only after having acquired better skills and training, in order to then actively develop computational neuroscience research activities in my country.On the professional side: I already mentioned the help of my lab colleagues. I wish to thank especially Dr. Driss Boussaoud –researcher at INS and funding member of the Mediterranean Neuroscience Society– as well as my professors in Morocco: Dr. Naceur Achtaich, Dr. Hassan El Hamri and, specially, Dr. Noura Yousfi, for encouraging me pursuing a PhD in France. Yes, I really owe so much to Dr. Yousfi, for her continued and invaluable trust throughout my entire bachelor.

I keep then the best for the end! I intend my PhD director Viktor Jirsa. I wish to thank him for the chance and the honor he gave me by accepting to be my mentor. I’ll never forget how he supported me when I was in doubt or failing. I have no words to express all my gratitude for his trust, his help, for all.

What are your future plans or hopes? Would you like going back to your home country or not and why?

No, I would actually prefer continuing my career abroad. I could come back to Morocco only after having acquired better skills and training, in order to then actively develop computational neuroscience research activities in my country.

Kenza El Houssaini is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Systems Neuroscience at Aix-Marseille University, serving as the local “my Epileptor” expert.



LAST ARTICLES
MNS Best Poster and Best presentation prizes at IBRO-ARC
MNS awarded Best Poster and Best presentation prizes at the third IBRO-ARC workshop "Central Nervous System Developmental Remodeling and Neuroplasticity" Faculty of Science, Alexandria University EGYPT with the support of IBRO and MNS 17 to 19 December 2020 Alexandria University, Egypt Virtual Workshop    
The Workshop The workshop was held over three days from 17 to 19 December 2020 on Zoom platform. A group of young researchers from Egypt, Tunis, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and India actively participated in this event. Furthermore, the sessions were delivered by distinguished professors from Egypt, France, Malta, Nigeria and South Africa. To maximize the benefit, the lectures were live-streamed over two days through the portals of IBRO and MNS: https://www.facebook.com/IBROarc https://www.facebook.com/MedNeuroSociety/   The workshop curriculum included ten sessions ranging from educational lectures and academic research to the presentation of the opportunities available to students and the current challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak, treatments from cannabinoid-derivatives and its relation with the central nervous system. The workshop also introduced the best methods of scientific publishing, with a commitment to the ethics of scientific research and publication. The workshop reviewed the opportunities available through the participating organizations. The workshop covered three practical sessions on molecular biology techniques, western blotting and brain anatomy. The prizes The workshop also included competitions among young researchers on their research presentations and the design of research posters.   The workshop concluded with a review of the results of the competitions, and MNS President Prof. Giuseppe Di Giovanni awarded a financial prize (€150) funded by MNS to Mustapha Oluwaseun from Nigeria for his excellence in all his contributions. The first best research presentation prize and the first best poster design were also funded by MNS.   The best research presentation prize The first prize (€150) was awarded to Fatma Ahmed from Lebanon The second prize was awarded to Nour-Eddine Kaikai from Morocco as a certificate of appreciation The third prize was awarded to Islam Ayman from Egypt and as a certificate of appreciation The best poster designs. The first prize (€150) was awarded to Sarah Mahfouz from Egypt The second prize was awarded to Isaac Henneh from Ghana as a certificate of appreciation The third prize was awarded to Yvette Nguizeye from Cameroon as a certificate of appreciation The workshop concluded with congratulating on the success of the workshop and thanking all funding organizations, lecturers, organizing committees, participants and wishes of a happy new year.
3rd IBRO-ARC Virtual workshop: Central Nervous System Developmental Remodeling and Neuroplasticity.
As President of the Mediterranean Neuroscience Society I am honored to invite you to join the virtual meeting of the 3rd IBRO (International Brain Research Organization) IBRO Africa Regional Committee workshop: Central Nervous System Developmental Remodeling and Neuroplasticity.The workshop will be hosted by Faculty of Science in #Alexandria University, #Egypt between 17-18 December 2020. Part of the program will be shared live as indicated in the attached program. Please save the dates and join US according to the timeline… We want to thank Amira Zaky for its organization and her valuable support.Join us through the following channels: - https://www.facebook.com/IBROarc/- https://www.facebook.com/MedNeuroSociety/https://fb.me/e/a5NVAKMMq
Giuseppe Di GiovanniMNS President
Postdoctoral Researcher Bioinformatics/Neuroscience University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego)
Expires on January 02, 2021
Postdoctoral Researcher Bioinformatics/NeuroscienceUniversity of California, San Diego (UC San Diego)La Jolla, United StatesWe are looking for a postdoctoral researcher to join the labs of Drs. Christopher Benner and Francesca Telese in the Department of Medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.The candidate will work in an interdisciplinary environment at the intersection of bioinformatics and neurobiology, using cutting edge genomics profiling and analysis techniques to understand subsistence abuse disorders and addiction.Dr. Benner’s research program is largely focused on decoding the regulatory functions of the genome by developing and applying NGS methods and computational analysis across different biological systems. A major goal of the lab is to study the role of enhancer elements in transcriptional regulation and to investigate disease-associated genetic variation on enhancer function to better understand the impact that non-coding DNA has on regulatory networks.Dr. Telese’s research program is primarily focused on using molecular and next-generation sequencing (NGS) methods to study tissue- and cell type-specific gene regulatory mechanisms that contribute to susceptibility and development of substance use disorders, using animal models. A major goal of the lab is to generate novel hypotheses that can be tested using functional genetic tools to elucidate unknown disease mechanisms and to identify novel therapeutic targets.Successful candidates will be expected to lead a project investigating the molecular and genetic underpinnings of addiction. Using single cell technologies and other advanced NGS techniques, the candidate will be responsible for both data acquisition and analysis, with the goal of elucidating transcriptional networks in the brain and verifying their findings. The candidate will have direct access to an Illumina NextSeq sequencer and extensive computational resources. The candidate will receive training in both laboratories, which will include working on novel NGS techniques and the development of new bioinformatics software and tools to characterize changes in transcription, chromatin states and genome structure during different stages of addiction development. This project is funded by an NIH U01 grant. Candidates should have a strong background in genomics, and serious scientists that specialize in either experimental and/or computational work will be considered for the position.UCSD is part of a vibrant scientific community in Southern California and is committed to build a culturally diverse and inclusive environment. Applications from female and minority candidates are strongly encouraged.Please send a cover letter describing research interest and fit for this position, a recent CV, and contact information of at least two references to Drs. Telese Francesca ftelese@ucsd.edu and Chris Benner cbenner@ucsd.edu  
MNS2021 - Canceled and Rescheduled  - President's Message
Dear MNS Members,
The Mediterranean Neuroscience Society is closely monitoring developments related to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic. The health and safety of our members is the number one priority of our society. Several other conferences and workshops have already made the decision to move to web-hosted events, while other conferences have decided to either change venues, reschedule the event, or to stay the course for now. Due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the importance of having an in-presence conference according the MNS’ aims, we have decided to cancel MNS2021, in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The conference has been rescheduled to May 29-June 2, 2022 and will still be held in Dubrovnik. We want to keep all of you informed as best as possible, please continue to check our website for updates about upcoming conference and events.   Wishing you the very best,   Giuseppe Di Giovanni   Mediterranean Neuroscience Society President
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