How did you get to your current position in research?
During University, I worked with young people with mental health problems. Having seen how much impact such conditions can have and how little we still know about them, made me interested in understanding what happens in the developing brain for psychiatric disorders to arise. After graduating, I thus pursued a PhD in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry investigating ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). During this time I realised how critical decision making in mental disorders are and that we have to understand the mechanisms that underlie these decision making biases. I then joined the Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry in London, where I could investigate exactly this.
What is it that fascinates you about research and science?
Trying to understand the unknown is what drives me. Knowing that no one knows the answers to these questions, and that maybe I can help to shed light into how psychiatric disorders manifest.
What are the biggest challenges?
The academic system is a tricky one that comes with many challenges. Being a scientist means that you sometimes work for years with no obvious result and you never know whether your projects will work out in the end. Before you become a professor, you will be working a lot (often for little money) with a lot of uncertainty. You may not know where you will be working in a year’s time, or whether you will have a job at all. It is therefore not surprising that many (often of the smartest) are leaving academia along the way to pursue successful careers outside academia.
Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for….
…a student deciding upon her/his field
Do what you get excited about! Science is often a slow process with few rewards. This is why you have to love science whole-heartedly to succeed. If you want to do science, you will fail. Often. Things will not work. Things will take much longer than you thought. But don’t give up! Get up again and try again. Never give up. And finally, things will work out! And then, you expanded human knowledge! You discovered something that no one knew before. This is super exciting! And it is totally worth the many times of failing before and it will nurture you to pursue the next endeavour into the unknown.
….a doctoral candidate choosing a topic an research group
Do some serious research on what interests you and with whom you want to do research. Choosing a supervisor is a bit like choosing a (temporary) parent. You will work closely over the next several years with this person, you will work in topics that your supervisor is interested in, and you will probably be in close contact well beyond your PhD. It is not only the science that matters, but also the personality. If the latter does not match, the PhD can become rather difficult. Talk to lots of people and try to form an informed sense of how a potential supervisor will be and whether she is a good match for you.
What’s your approximate success/rejection rate for (papers/grants/job applications)?
Difficult to say. Some papers I only submit once, some I submit 10 times. And sometimes it is your best work that struggles the most with getting published.
We are all great in handling success, but what’s your mantra to handle rejections?
I wish I had one. It still hurts when your work is being rejected. Just be aware that you are not (only) your work. A rejection of your work does not mean a rejection of you as a person.
Where do you think the future of your field lies? What are key challenges we have to overcome?
I think it is critical to bring together different fields. Only this way we can overcome the challenges that we are facing. In my field this primarily means bringing basic and clinical neuroscience together. To understand psychiatric disorders, we must understand the computational mechanisms that underlie the decision making that is biased in mental health patients. We can only achieve that if we empower scientists to link these fields, to know the methods that this research requires and to conduct thought-through experiments that explain how decision-making biases arise, from neurons to cognition.
For more scientific interviews see our experts’ section.