Colin Ellard

I Think, Therefore I Create

There's something to be said about being daring, whether it's in your work life or your musical tastes... take it from this neuroscience professor.


Colin Ellard is an Associate Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo and Director of the Urban Reality Laboratory. We asked him everything from what he is reading to what advice he would give to young researchers in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What inspired you to become a researcher?
I took a long and meandering path into research. I was torn between trying to do something creative, like writing or film-making, and exercising my love of tinkering, experimentation and play. It wasn’t until my senior years of my Bachelor’s degree that I understood that a scientist really gets to exercise all of these passions.

What do you like most about your work?
So many things! I like the freedom and flexibility most of all, I think – the idea that as long as what I do is of good quality and relevant, I’m free to engage my passions. More than in most professions, I think, there’s nobody standing over me telling me what I have to do. I’m free to make my own career.

What do you envision in the future of your field?
I’m hopeful that there will be closer collaboration between human scientists like me and the people – architects and planners – who build human environments. I think there’s enormous potential for this collaboration to result in better buildings and cities.

How will your research make a difference in people’s lives?
The discoveries that we’re making in my lab will lead to better city-building principles that will help us to cope with the pressures of high-density living (a necessary element of our future, I think) while maintaining good mental health.

What advice would you give to young researchers?
Choose your problems carefully with an eye to the future. To paraphrase one of our hockey greats, Wayne Gretzky, try to see where the puck is going and not where it is now. Don’t be afraid to change your area of research if you feel a strong pull. Don’t jump too often but don’t be afraid to make a few brave leaps in your life. Change will keep your mind young.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I think one of the things that gives me the greatest career satisfaction is when I learn that I’ve inspired a student to embark on a research career. I’ve taught some students who have gone on to some tremendous accomplishments – they are much more brightly shining stars than me – and it’s great to feel that I might have played some small part in inspiring them to achieve.

What do you read?
A LOT! I have very eclectic interests and usually have about seven or eight books on the go. I have to read a fair amount of technical material in my field, of course, but I also love to read (and write) science books written for general audiences. I also read lots of fiction for pleasure, escape, and instruction in the important things about life.

What’s on your iPod/CD collection/turntable?
I have very eclectic tastes and choose music to suit the setting – Mozart when I’m writing, reggae when I’m driving (helps with patience in traffic jams!), Frank Sinatra for late night musings and Stephin Merritt for love wounds.

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be?
Architecture. Looking back, thinking about what I was interested in and how I spent my time as a young man, I’m a bit astonished that this never occurred to me.

What do you like to do for fun?
I love walking and biking. I travel as much as I can.

Do you have a favourite motto/words to live by?
One of my best childhood friends once told me “Plan for the best and the best will happen.” What he meant was that it can be so easy to get trapped in a million cautious backup plans that you don’t have enough energy left to succeed in whatever it is that you really want to do. I’ve always remembered this conversation and it’s helped me during the times in my life when I’ve had to find the courage to do the things I’ve really wanted to do, sometimes in the face of daunting odds.