March 4, 2022 Leave your thoughts

Ali Mahmoodi and the rare virtue of finishing what you start

Today Ali Mahmoodi’s new paper was published in PLoS Biology. This paper is the last episode of his PhD work that he began in 2015 in Freiburg working with Carsten Mehring and myself. He defended his thesis in 2019 but, as happens with PhD papers, they often tend to follow with delay. But this one was well worth the wait.

Ali and I have worked together for more than a decade now. In 2011, Majid Nili (Tehran Uni, Electronic Engineering Faculty) offered to co-supervise a MSc student. This student turned out to be Ali. He took up the project and did very well, publishing a paper (with Majid and myself) in PLoS One in 2013 before his MSc defence. You can therefore imagine my surprise when in his MSc defence, referees complained that the pdf of the thesis had many typos, entire formulas were missing and certain spelling mistakes were consistently repeated. My surprise was compounded when, within the same session, Ali challenged the referees about the typos, claiming that his completely-made-up way of spelling was “The Correct” way and that the future of Farsi language was going to prove him right (and presumably posterity would take that defence session as irrefutable proof of Ali’s clairvoyant vision of Farsi spelling). The referees tried to persuade Ali that given his patchy grades and history of delays in missing previous deadlines, it was better to leave controversy out, at least until the end of the defence session. 

That year, 2013, was the last time people were excited (and hopeful) enough to take a presidential election campaign seriously in Iran. I remember that Ali and I went to several campaign meetings in June of that year and in one most remarkable case, spent an afternoon on the back of a pickup truck with several other friends being driven through streets of early summer Tehran and screaming our lungs out for (what we thought) was progressive politics in Iran. 

Ali then spent the subsequent two years doing a heroic amount of scientific work in Tehran. In 2015 he had his second paper in PNAS after 4 rounds of review that stretched over more than two years. He also collaborated with Dan Bang and contributed critically to another paper that would later be published in 2017 in Nature Human Behaviour. In 2015 he went to Freiburg, Germany and started a PhD with Carsten Mehring. He did not forget about me and we continued to work together. 

In his PhD work Ali made a very impressive discovery about the psychological basis of human interactions. He invented a novel experimental setup to measure how people take into account each other’s opinion when they disagree and discovered that people care about politeness even when they exchange purely factual information with one another. If others have been nice and taken your view into account in previous interactions, then you would also be nice in return and change your mind when they disagree with you. If others are impolite and ignore you, then you ignore them too even though taking their view into account may have helped you do better. Interestingly, Ali also discovered that  when people interacted with a non-human partner, ie a computer vision algorithm in that case, they did not care about politeness and took the impolite computer’s opinion into account. 

When Ali wrote the first paper of his PhD that described this discovery, we spent a long time sending the manuscript back and forth between us and discussing what was missing or how it could be written better. We tried to anticipate the reviewer arguments and preempt clever ways to resolve them beforehand. We ended up disagreeing on a couple of issues till the end. I thought Ali’s reviewers will ask him for a number of control measures and therefore reject his paper. He asked me to let him go forward and take the risk and submit. I agreed, anticipating to be proven right by receiving a rejection. Ali’s paper went through review in Nature Communications, and the reviewers confirmed what Ali had predicted and the paper was published in 2018. I was proven wrong. 

In spring of 2018 Ali came to London to take his experimental setup into fMRI. He spent two months in our lab, worked extremely hard and despite the ongoing strike-action in UCL campus, managed to collect data from 20 subjects in the scanner (and another 40 outside). He then took the data back with himself to Germany to write his PhD thesis. Over the following year, he finished his PhD and moved to UK to do a postdoc with Matthew Rushworth in Oxford. By this time we had written up the manuscript of the paper and submitted it to a few journals and been rejected a few times. I had been starting to accept that maybe this project will not reach a definitive end. Then the covid-19 pandemic happened. 

Animal labs stopped working. Imaging facilities closed down. Ali took advantage of this gap and used the opportunity to go back to the project. He revisited not just the paper but the entire project and over the next two years produced new analyses, new manuscript and a new paper which went through a very constructive peer review in PLoS Biology and became an even better paper which is what you see published now. 

Ali’s work shows show what happens in the human brain when we try to influence others or when we ourselves are influenced by others.

And with this paper, another chapter of our collaboration comes to its end, emphasising for me that, more than anything else, Ali Mahmoodi is the type of person who finishes what he starts. 

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