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In the Spotlight: Juggling vision, videos — and balls

This "In the Spotlight" features Guillaume Riesen, a PhD student in neuroscience with many, many hobbies.

Guillaume Riesen is a fifth-year graduate student in the Neurosciences PhD Program, but his pursuits extend far beyond the lab. Just scroll through his blog or his YouTube channel and you can see that he juggles a number of passions. Including juggling.

I caught up with him recently to learn more.

How did you get interested in science?

I've always been curious about the world and science was the tool that helped me pursue that interest. My dad is a field service engineer and fixes hospital machines when they break. When I was a kid, he would bring back all these little tools, containers and vials, and I would put stuff in them and see how they decayed over time.  

What are you working on right now?

My current project is about visual perception and what happens when the two eyes have different inputs. Normally, each eye sees a slightly different image and your brain takes those two images and produces one 3D perception of the world. If the two images are divergent enough, they'll compete and only one eye will produce a visual sensation at a time; this is called binocular rivalry.

My research asks what happens if you have something that's kind of similar, but just different enough that sometimes there's competition. This work just recently got published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I love to make things ­-- I'm an obsessive creator and do a lot of art and random projects. Most recently, I've been doing a lot of ceramics at the Stanford ceramics studio, which has been super fun.

And I've been doing a lot of stuff at the Product Realization Lab, Stanford's hacker space. I design tessellations -- shapes that fit into themselves to fill space, like the squares on a checkerboard. I also made a little model of the Hoover Tower that lights up for my advisor after I published my first journal article.

A collection of Guillaume's handiwork. Tessellation is in the center.
(Courtesy of Guillaume Riesen)

How did you start juggling?

I was inspired by a viral video by juggler Chris Bliss that I found really beautiful, and then taught myself using balled-up socks. Juggling is very addictive; there's always something you can't quite do, so I haven't really stopped since. Most broadly, juggling is kind of a mindset. It's a playful exploration of what's possible when manipulating objects within gravity. This can be applied in almost any situation and I've had a lot of fun seeing how different objects behave through this lens.

Could you describe your YouTube channel?

I started my channel when I was in high school because there weren't many resources for learning to juggle. It took me a long time to teach myself from written descriptions, so I decided to make tutorials based on that.

Guillaume Riesen demonstrates a juggling trick.

And then I started doing science videos.

In college, one of my professors had a really cool demo where you look through a hole in an index card and you shake it around. You see the blood vessels in the back of your eye, which are actually in front of your photosensitive cells. They're constantly casting a shadow, but you don't see it because it's always there and you tune it out. But if you get a point light source and shake it around, the shadows move, and you see a network of veins, which is a wild moment.

This video explains an interesting visual trick.

I made my first science video explaining that demo and that's by far been my most popular video.

I like the idea of getting people to have these experiences where they see something firsthand and then that drives them to ask, "Why that would happen?"

My most recent one was about using ketamine to treat depression and actually won second place in the Brain Awareness Video Contest from the Society for Neuroscience this year.

This video recently won second place in the Brain Awareness Video Contest hosted by the Society for Neuroscience.

I'm hoping in my future career to do something in the education space and bring a philosophy of hands-on, active learning.

Photo by Daphne Sashin

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