Colleen Gillon

Colleen Gillon

Where did you grow up and what’s your background?
I was born in Toronto, but grew up in Montreal, as we moved when I was pretty young. I have family from Ontario and the US. Depending on the weather, I consider myself any combination of Canadian, American and Quebecker.

Where did you study before coming to UTSC?
I completed my undergraduate studies at McGill University in Cognitive Science, during which I spent an exchange year at the National University of Singapore. I then did an MSc in Physiology at the University of Toronto with Dr. Sheena Josselyn at SickKids.

What is your main research project?
Our brain's complexity and flexibility make it extraordinarily good at understanding the world around us and learning new skills. Given how impressively powerful the brain is, understanding how it works can seem almost out of reach, but recent research in machine learning is providing some very helpful leads. Specifically, it turns out that if you teach certain computational algorithms how to learn from their mistakes, they can figure out how to accomplish highly complex tasks, like face or speech recognition, without being explicitly coded to do them. We think some of the most effective learning rules may be similar to those that the brain uses to make sense of the world. My PhD project aims to investigate this question in the visual cortex. Specifically, I am studying neuronal activity (by looking at calcium dynamics) in visual cortex neurons across changes in a sensory task. By comparing how visual neuron populations respond to a change in their sensory environment to how different computational algorithms respond to an analogous simulation, I expect to identify powerful machine learning algorithms that behave similarly to the visual cortex. This should allow me to eventually test predictions drawn from the most promising algorithms. I hope that our research will enhance our formal understanding of the brain's extraordinary learning capabilities, and allow us to design future experiments around increasingly precise predictions drawn from formal models.

Why science? If not science, then what?
I'm very interested in complex systems and how their components come together to make them work. Pretty early on, during my first biology classes, I settled on the brain as the complex system I was most curious about, and tried to learn as much as I could about it. Of course, there is so much still to be understood about the brain, and being in science gives me the opportunity to look into the specific neuroscience questions I think are most exciting. However, if I weren't in science, I might have been drawn to strategic planning in nonprofits. I am fascinated by people who are able to find practical and effective solutions to achieve societal goals.

The best restaurant in Scarborough is...?
Saravanaa Bhavan, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant (with buffet lunches!) is definitely up there. There's still a lot more to explore in Scarborough though.

Your favourite place in Toronto is…?
The parks around the Don River are beautiful to bike around. However, my first time coming back from UTSC, I spent two hours there trying to find a place to cross the parkway. And it was raining. Still, if you aren't lost, the Don River Valley area is a beautiful place for a bike ride and a picnic.

Your favourite place on the inter tubes?
I've been cultivating a love-cringe relationship with fail videos on youtube of late.

Best song of all time?
For its alarming, but exquisite vibrato: "Pourquoi donc, lorsque l'on s'aime ?"

To reach me:
colleen dot gillon at mail dot utoronto dot ca