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Mahmoud Gouda
Skoltech, Life Science track Graduate

from: Egypt,

joined lab: in the beggining of academic year 2018/19

worked under the topic of Comparison of Prefrontal cortex layers between Human, Chimp and Macaque,

previous education -
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— Can you start by telling me a bit about yourself and about your research and educational background as well as the projects that you are working on?
— My made is Mahmoud, I'm 28 years old and I finished my Bachelor's Degree in biochemistry and chemistry at the University of Egypt. After that, I began an MA in biochemistry. During that time, I came across the Skoltech program for Life Sciences; I applied for it and got accepted.

I deferred my MA in Egypt for some time so that I could discover the opportunities here, because Skoltech is such a new science and technology institute.

When I first came here, I got my first impressions, some of which were not so good, some of which were good. However, the experience overall was positive and I gained some talents, experiences and skills. Firstly, I did not join this center (ref. Center For Neurobioligy and Brain Restoration) directly. I first worked with Professor Olga Dontsova at Moscow State University. I worked there on projects related to cancer, because my main interests are in that field. After that, my attention was drawn to a neuroscience course here at Skoltech, because neuroscience to me is like looking at something with fuzzy vision – I don't know much about it and didn't study it in my BA, and knew nothing about the field until I came across it here.
— How did it happen that you entered one of the lab of CNBR for your Master Thesis?
— During the summer vacation of the first year, I went to Professor Konstantin Severinov, the head of Life Sciences, and asked him about my Master's thesis and some issues related to it; he recommended that I go to Professor Khaitovich to do some research related to neuroscience.

This was a big challenge because of the time limit, which was just one year, because I'd already spent one year at the cancer lab in MSU. It was a risk, but I decided to go and when I first came to the Center for Life Sciences, I found that Professor Philipp is really a very nice person and we started to do something with the CREI.
— What was the project you were working on?
— My subject is focused on finding differences in the cortical region of the human brain. In the human brain, we have a structure that is called the neocortex; this structure is very heavily studied but, even now, we don't have a lot of information about it. It's a very complex part of the brain, and research is developing within this field. So we followed a novel approach that was developed with Professor Philipp and other labs to study the human cortical regions to define the unique features that are specific to the human brain and how it works.

We decided to study such regions, and I started to work on this project for about nine months and the experience was very interesting but harsh at the same time, because within a very limited time I had to do a lot of work, and at the same time find regions to put in my thesis. I found this to be the most interesting part of this journey because, when you are under stress, this allows you to work at a rate that you couldn't have imagined before.

Finally, the thesis to some extent was successful – the goal was to find a difference between two brain regions. One was the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for cognitive abilities in a human; the other region is responsible for vision processing. This is really interesting, because these are two different regions in terms of function and we could find some small differences, but the main limitation for the study was the sample size. This was another challenge for my thesis, but in the end, I think it was successful.

It was a good experience for me, because I learned here how to be 100% independent. You are free and left to do your work independently.
— What are your main impressions of your experience here at the lab?
— It is a mix of stress, interest, and passion.
— Describe your best day at the lab?
— When I got the CDNA (Complementary DNA) libraries ready for sequencing, I was required to do sequencing because my project contains some sequencing part as well...

And also, I think there was another day when I got a grant from Skoltech to do this sequencing part.
— ... and what about the worst one?
— The worst days were during the New Year, because I realised that had worked a lot and I didn't get any good results in my research so far; but then I persevered, continued and everything was okay.
— What's the most interesting aspect of your work here?
— The most interesting aspect is that it is a novel work; we found some molecular differences between important neocortical regions from the aspect of human functions by following the novel approach that was developed here in the lab.

I think that this work will be continued in some big projects here that will perhaps take some time to complete. It will be very interesting to know what these differences are and how the human brain works from the inside.
— What was the main challenge in your work?
— A lack of samples. This is not a problem, because it is the first year of the center, and I think that issue will be resolved in the near future.
— Would you recommend this to other people?
— I would recommend it to them, because neuroscience is such an interesting field to study. Now we know that the development of machine learning and artificial intelligence came along with it and helped us understand how our brain works, so I think this is a revolution in technology. This is especially true of artificial intelligence technology with regards to how the human brain works. This is interesting because there are going to be a lot of developments and discoveries about humans. For many years, we have studied the brain and tried to understand how it works, but we still don't know a lot of the answers, we just find questions that raise more questions. When you are a student from biology, you feel that neuroscience is special in that it's not similar to other fields. I think this is the field of the future.
— What advice would you offer to a prospective student?
— Firstly, to be confident in their abilities. Neuroscience is very interesting so when you come, be confident about this. In addition, they should have a good background in data science analysis, because this field is to a great extent built on such skills and he or she should develop these skills before joining.
Are you going to continue in neuroscience?
— I'm definitely planning on continuing but from a different aspect.

Epigenetics is my main area of interest. In simple words, that is how the gene expression is controlled inside the cells by very dynamic aspects. Some molecular markers in our DNA are responsible for the expression of some genes under certain conditions and this, in simple terms is responsible for the differentiation among different types of human cells.

As we know, all the cells in our body have the same DNA, but some cells are for the eye, some for the skin and so on. This specialization is conducted and controlled by these epigenetics markers, so that's why I'm especially interested in neuroscience.

Initially, I was interested in epigenetics markers inside cancer cells and how they change, and now my interest is understanding how epigenetics markers change inside neurons during learning and with some diseases and so on.

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Mahmoud returned to Egypt in order to complete his study there.. He .....
Interviewed by: John le John and Yevtam Talub
Material Publication: Yevtam Talub
CNBR Media, 2019