Profile with Lesley Fellows

Lesley Fellows (Maritimes & Balliol 1990) is a member of the McGill Faculty of Medicine and Montreal Neurological Institute, where she is an associate professor in the department of Neurology and Neurosurgery.  Her current research interest involves the cognitive neuroscience of decision making in the frontal lobes. Lesley holds a DPhil in Physiology from the University of Oxford, and an MD and BSc in Physiology from McGill University.

Rhodes Project: What is the last book that you read for pleasure?

Lesley Fellows: I just finished reading Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike.  It’s about the building of Canada’s railway from Montreal to the Pacific Ocean which was a seminal moment in Canada’s history as a developing nation back in the 1880s.  The reason I was reading it was that I was taking the train from the West Coast to Montreal, so it seemed appropriate!

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Lesley Fellows: I wanted to be a doctor - I wasn’t very imaginative that way.  It wasn’t until medical school that I actually had an idea about what kind of doctor I wanted to be.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy most about your job now?

Lesley Fellows: I like the variety, and the challenge of having a job that requires me to do all kinds of different things.  It keeps me on my toes.  I like the opportunity to work with students and younger colleagues and seeing them flourish.  I like looking after patients.  I like having the great opportunity that academic work brings of being able to pursue my own ideas and questions which is really a luxury.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy the least?

Lesley Fellows: All of the work I do is part of large, intersecting organisations, universities and hospitals, and in Canada both of those are related to government and granting agencies.  Any time you’re dealing with multiple large organisations there are always aggravations and a slow pace of change and adjustment, and so at times that can be frustrating or tiresome, so I suppose that would be the main drawback.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about your decision lab?

Lesley Fellows: The basic research I do is trying to understand the brain basis of complex human behaviour in general, focused on frontal lobe functions which include decision making, learning, motivation and related emotional experiences.  I’m trying to take these complex behaviours and break them down into smaller processes that are simpler, that are more likely to be relatable to the brain in an interesting way, and then study patients with focal damage to the frontal lobes to see if I can understand whether specific components of these complex behaviours have been affected by that damage.  In a way this is an old fashioned method of research - it’s sort of returning to the origins of neurology and neuropsychology, thinking of the brain as a set of modules or parts that together produce complex behaviour, and to use patients to take advantage of the effects of damage to understand what’s going wrong.  It’s a long-standing method that I still think is a very powerful one, and particularly interesting when you’re exploring new areas of behaviour like decision making, and social and emotional behaviours.  It’s relatively recently that we’ve started to tackle understanding how those work in the brain, and that’s what I work on.

Rhodes Project: What motivated you to pursue a career in neuroscience?

Lesley Fellows: I did my PhD in neuroscience at Oxford (though it wasn’t called neuroscience in those days) so I was always very interested in the brain.  I had a very positive experience of research at Oxford, so that whetted my appetite to follow an academic career in medicine, but I kept an open mind about what kind of clinical medicine I might like to do because I didn’t think it was necessarily the case that just because I found the brain interesting that I would find neurology interesting.  For that matter there are other branches of medicine such as psychiatry or neurosurgery which link to the brain as well, so I was open minded, and in fact rather undecided about what I wanted to do all the way through on purpose because I wanted to have the chance to think about the rest of clinical medicine.  It’s not just the research, you have to care for the patients and find that engaging as well. 

In the end I came round to deciding that neurology was the most interesting and closely aligned with my research interests.  I was tempted by psychiatry, but my physiology background took me towards neurology because psychiatry is still in the very challenging situation of not having anything definite known about the physiological processes underpinning any of the disorders they deal with and I was attracted to problems that were slightly more tractable, looking at cognitive neurology, which is where I’ve ended up.

Rhodes Project: Is there a new neurological discovery that you find particularly interesting?

Lesley Fellows: There’s a trend in the last few years in neuroscience research around complex behaviours that I find interesting, which I am personally trying to learn more about and I think has a lot of potential.  It comes from the new neuroimaging methods that have become more and more used in the last couple of years.  It’s thinking about the brain not only as a series of interacting modules, but also in terms of the network properties of the brain – in some ways it’s an old idea but now we have the tools to really start to test specific hypotheses to get to a more mechanistic understanding of how different parts of the brain interact, whether through direct connections or through activity that is just going on at the same time and indirectly connects.  It’s quite an abstract idea, but I think it has a lot of potential for us to move forward from “What do those smaller regions of the brains do?” to “How do they interact?” 

One of the reasons I find that so interesting is that a lot of neurological disorders that have impairments in cognition, behaviour or emotional states have been hard to understand and work on.  We’re at a very coarse understanding of disorders in general, such as multiple sclerosis, or HIV where there’s chronic inflammation that may affect the whole brain, or how certain toxins such as chemotherapy may affect the functions of the whole brain.  We don’t necessarily understand what goes wrong in any deep way or in a way that might help people get better.  I think some of these network ways of thinking and methods of exploring network changes might be really powerful for those disorders.  Although it’s not the area that I’m directly working on at the moment, it’s an area that I’m very interested it, and I think it’s going to flow in a very interesting direction over the next few years.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any role models?

Lesley Fellows: I have lots of role models and mentors - I’ve been here at McGill for quite a long time and have had the chance to work with tons of very interesting, kind people, whether as an undergraduate student or as a trainee in medicine, or on the faculty.  It’s hard to pick specific people.  The person who got me into neuroscience, and who helped me a lot when I went to Oxford was Dan Guitton who works here at The Neuro where I am now, so I’ve come back around to be working with him again. It was his course that as an undergraduate got me really interested in the area, and that lead to where I am now.  Another role model was my research supervisor at Oxford, Mary-Anne Filenz.  She was an extraordinary scientist and role model – she was a classic scientist, very fair and rigorous, and it was a real privilege to work in her lab.  Also I should mention my post-doctoral supervisor Martha Farah, who I was also very lucky to work with.  She is a very creative and provocative neuroscientist and writer, and I really enjoyed the chance to work with her.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do outside of work?

Lesley Fellows: I have a couple of kids, so they keep me busy.  I like to be outside – cycling, walking, hiking or camping when I have the time.  I cycle to work through Montreal traffic which keeps me alert.  I enjoy a good meal – fine wine, good friends, things like that.  There’s not necessarily a whole lot of time outside of work by the time we get through family related things.  Like any good Rhodes Scholar I used to be very much into sports and was involved in pretty much everything, from rowing to basketball and a number of other sports, but it’s been a number of years since I’ve been involved in any of them in any serious way.  Now I just try to stay active and get outside.

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