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Topics: Clinical & Translational Research, Collaboration & Team Science, Education & Training, Five Questions, Mentoring

Five Questions with Walid Yassine

A neuropsychiatry research associate discusses the group he founded to tackle scientific and life challenges caused by neurodevelopment disorders.

Members of The MIND Project sit outside on a lawn at a monthly meeting.
A monthly meeting of The MIND Project. From left to right: Michal Lipinski, Georgios Ntolkeras, Ann Iturra-Mena, Walid Yassine, and Fatemeh Bahari.

Walid Yassine, DMSc, is a research associate at McLean Hospital. He is the founder of The MIND Project (TMP), a working group with a mission focused on tackling the scientific and life challenges caused by neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. This working group brings together researchers across Harvard University and its affiliates who are interested in its mission.

Please tell us about your area of research expertise.

I do both preclinical and clinical research in neuropsychiatry. The preclinical research focuses on the use of drugs and how those impact the brain and lead to different neuropsychiatric disorders. And the clinical uses neuroimaging and machine learning to better understand neuropsychiatric disorders, especially schizophrenia, autism, and psychosis, and to provide objective-biomarker informed therapeutic interventions.

“I became convinced that in order to tackle challenging questions related to the mind, we need to encourage more interdisciplinary research.”

You came here as a postdoc from the University of Tokyo in 2020 and launched TMP at the beginning of 2021. How did the idea for it arise and what’s been the reaction?

As a young investigator myself, I became convinced that in order to tackle challenging questions related to the mind, we need to encourage more interdisciplinary research. I wanted to create something that could help young investigators nurture their skills by collaborating with other researchers outside of their field, and to consider the translational aspect of their publications. We’re always focused on publications, but what about a product? Products could provide a more immediate help to improve the lives of those impacted by mental disorders.

My analogy to describe the future vision of TMP is what would happen if MIT’s Media Lab and the Martinos Center had a baby, and this “baby” focused specifically on challenges of the mind.

Interest has skyrocketed. When we began, it was just few of us, and now we are around 170 young investigator. Faculty have been enormously helpful, and we have a stellar board of advisors, in addition to other faculty members who are heavily involved in our educational programs. The Harvard Brain Science Initiative helped us spread the message and have been key to our success, as have Harvard Catalyst, other institutions, and industry partners.

Can you describe your two educational programs and response to them so far?

The Mind Match program matches Harvard graduate and undergraduate students with faculty and other young investigators. Most students have to find their own mentors for research, internships, or thesis work. We work closely with the program coordinators across all major schools within Harvard, and they have been an immense help to spread the word about our programs.

Investigators seeking helping hands in their labs use our database to announce the openings. “This is my research. These are the types of people we’re looking for.” And then the grads and undergrads input their skills and expertise. We send the investigators a list of those interested in their research, and they select a student. Students get an email that says, “It’s a MATCH!” To date, 38 students from across Harvard are part of MIND MATCH.

We also launched the Trainee Mentorship Program 32 (TMP32) (32 is a play on the famous T32 research training grant), which pairs fellows with faculty. This program focuses on skill retention, and scientific fit. It’s important that scientists discover their true passion and assess where they fit best because that’s how they go on to produce and do remarkable work. This is still a work in progress, but we have had several fellows interested in this program.

“If we look at some of this field’s perplexing questions and contribute knowledge from our respective disciplines collectively, who knows what we will achieve.”

Are there specific examples of how TMP may help solve intractable problems in the field?

There are several Nobel Prize winners who simply borrowed from other fields. For example, Osamu Shimomura, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008, borrowed from marine biology, when he found a bioluminescent protein in a glowing jellyfish.

In our monthly meetings, we discuss organizational issues, but also hang out. Our conversations naturally turn towards science. One person from a particular field says, “Oh, we do such-in-such as part of what I’m studying.” And I’m like, “My field could benefit from that, so how about we collaborate?”

We also have projects that are proposed  listed on our website to bring people who have computational skills and imaging skills together to analyze already existing online databases.

What would you like to see happen over the next few years with TMP?

We’re hoping to become an independent group so we can raise funds and ultimately hire an administrator. That will allow us to focus more on these kinds of collaborative research projects.

We really hope that in the future, we’ll reach a level where we have a psychical space where scientists from a multitude of disciplines can come together to work on projects related to the mind. If we look at some of this field’s perplexing questions and contribute knowledge from our respective disciplines collectively, who knows what we will achieve.

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