Xoana Troncoso, twice laureate of an Individual Fellowship Marie Curie-Sklodowska Actions, presents her project and her research


The visual perception of the brain

Our brains can distinguish between motion in the environment and our own motion: Did the image that falls in our retina (the back of our eyes) change because something moved or because we moved? Is the chirping heard by a cricket coming from another cricket or is it its own chirping? Was the sudden skin pressure felt due to a predator’s paw touching the animal or due to an obstacle touched by the animal? The signals the brain uses to make these distinctions can also be used to influence the acquisition of information to optimize our sensory processing. The Marie Curie project of Xoana Troncoso called ProactionPerception, carried out at the Unité de Neurosciences Information et Complexité (UNIC-CNRS*, director Yves Frégnac), explores the links between eye movements and perception during exploration of a visual scene. The main goal is to understand how the way we move our eyes impacts the way information is processed by the part of our brain in charge of vision. A better knowledge of this phenomenon will be relevant to the study of all sensory modalities and to a deeper understanding of how our brains can make predictions. This fundamental research project has translational potential for the fields of medicine and neural-prosthetics, neuromorphic computing, and robotics.

A major contemporary challenge

Understanding how the brain works is one of the greatest scientific challenges of the 21st century. By the end of her Marie Curie fellowship, Xoana hopes to get a leading independent research position at UNIC. This will allow her to direct her own research team and continue to contribute to the understanding of the principles of brain function.

Interview with Xoana Troncoso (UNIC-CNRS), twice laureate of a Marie Curie individual fellowship

What is your research background?

I have a university degree in Physics, with a specialization in electronics and computation. After finishing my university studies at the University of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle (Spain), I had the opportunity to work as a programmer and data analyst in a Neuroscience lab. I very soon realized that studying the brain was fascinating and decided to do a PhD in Neuroscience. It may seem that Neuroscience is very far from my initial degree in Physics, but if we think about it we will realize that the human brain has around 100 billion specialized cells (called neurons) making over 1 quadrillion connections among themselves. These connections among neurons allow them to communicate information, creating every experience we have of the world. So circuits and information processing are key aspects of Neuroscience, and physicists are specialists in both. The brain is so complex that Neuroscience is indeed a very interdisciplinary field, combining the efforts of biologists, medical doctors, psychologists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists,…

After getting my PhD in Neuroscience from University College London, I did two postdocs in the USA: the first one at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix under the supervision of Susana Martinez-Conde, where I studied the function of fixational eye movements (tiny movements of the eye that we make involuntarily when we try to fixate our gaze) ; the second one at the California Institure of Technology (Caltech) in Los Angeles under the supervision of Richard Andersen, where I investigated the neural correlates of action and decision making.

What were the reasons behind your application for an MSCA Individual Fellowship? What major change had this fellowship brought to your research?

After my two postdocs in the US, I felt ready to come back to Europe with the goal of advancing my career to soon get an independent position. The MSCA individual fellowship was the perfect program for this: in addition to allowing me to do excellent research at UNIC, an internationally recognized interdisciplinary Research Unit in France, it promotes the career development of the fellows by giving them more independence and providing training in transferrable skills. Another important aspect of MSCA is their emphasis on outreach and science communication: as scientists our job is not only to make discoveries but also to promote communication and transfer of knowledge to the public. As a Marie Curie fellow I have participated in multiple activities to explain my research in schools and in events open to the general public. I have also had the opportunity to attend EU high level meetings where scientists interact with political leaders, policy makers, stake-holders and industry representatives.

You have two MSCA felloships, what are the differences between the two?

The two fellowships had slightly different focuses. The first one emphasized career advancement by the acquisition of new skills and scientific techniques that would expand the researcher’s capabilities. The second one is specific to European researchers who have spent a significant amount of time doing research outside of Europe (in my case in the US), to help them return to Europe and permanently reintegrate here. It emphasizes the transfer to Europe of both the knowledge and the scientific network acquired while abroad.

Have you encountered any problems, difficulties when writing your proposal and preparing for your project?

Preparing a Marie Curie proposal requires a lot of knowledge about grant writing in general and about the specifics of the Marie Curie Actions. It also requires significant help from the host institution to provide all the information required to demonstrate how they will support your research project and your career development. I was very fortunate that the Unité de Neurosciences Information et Complexité (UNIC-CNRS), where I am carrying out my project, was very experienced and competent in this regard, and provided me with invaluable guidance through-out the proposal preparation. I am sure their help, and in particular that of Kirsty Grant, at the time team leader at UNIC and who has been involved for a long time in interdisciplinary European projects in Life-like perception, had a big impact on the success of my application. The Université Paris-Saclay now has in place an annual workshop/information-day to train potential applicants and host scientists to prepare their proposals, providing them with critical in-depth information about the process. I believe this is a very valuable resource that highly increases the chances of the Université Paris-Saclay community to successfully apply to this competitive fellowship program.

From your experience, what would be your advice to young and promising researchers wishing to apply for an MSCA Individual Fellowship?

I would recommend researchers thinking of applying, to carefully select the place where they are going to carry out their proposed project: make sure the host scientist will be very supportive of their research and their career development, and willing to be implicated in the time-consuming proposal preparation process. I would also advise them to be ‘daring’: the program’s prestige and competitiveness shouldn’t deter them for applying – all good applications have a chance of getting funded!

Interview by the Service Europe of the Université Paris-Saclay.

*UNIC is an Intramural Research Unit of the CNRS