Studying the Developing Brain – A Swiss Postdoc in Australia

In our expert’s section this week: Ines Mürner-Lavanchy, a Swiss postdoctoral research fellow currently working at the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Ines works as a developmental neuroscientist and is conducting neuroimaging research studies with children born very prematurely. In her interview she talks about her fascination with research and science, how it is to conduct neuroimaging sessions with young children and what it means to study and work far away from her home country.


Ines Mürner-Lavanchy (30 years), postdoctoral research fellow at Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences, Monash University Melbourne, Australia

How did you get into research?

My Bachelor studies were already way better than what I had expected (I started not really knowing what to expect from studying psychology). However, it was the deeper understanding of cognitive, experimental and neuropsychology I got during my masters, which sparked my interest in science. I always loved asking questions, learning, discussing and deepening my knowledge in certain areas.

When I first met my Master’s thesis supervisor, she told me that clinical research with children was not like what we had learnt at University. I think what she meant was that strict rules about experimental setup can for example be relatively hard to comply with in children, particularly when working with those with cognitive difficulties. While that really puzzled me at first, I wanted to accept this challenge.

What is your focus?

My work focuses on understanding cognitive and brain development following early brain insult. More specifically I work with children born very prematurely. I am further interested in environmental and personal factors that can influence child development and possible benefits of interventions to improve long-term neurodevelopment. I use a combination of measures, including neuropsychological assessments, behavioural questionnaires and neuroimaging.

Neuroimaging studies are quite common in adults. What about neuroimaging research in children or infants?

Neuroimaging with young children can be quite challenging. It is important to prepare children well before scanning, so that they will not be scared by the scanner surroundings. We try to introduce children carefully by showing them everything in detail and simulating the loud noises beforehand. When conducting a task within the scanner, we make sure to train the task previously. Just like in photography where movement can lead to blurry pictures, movement in the scanner blurs brain images. The more relaxed the child is, the better is her ability to lie still in the scanner. Therefore, we focus a lot on assuring the well-being of our participants. Personally, I have not conducted neuroimaging sessions in children under the age of 7 yet. But, there are a few groups which demonstrate how to conduct neuroimaging even in babies: Once the babies are fed, swaddled and put to sleep. It is actually feasible!

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

How can anyone not be fascinated by science? For me, research is about asking questions, answering them and questioning the answers again. This can be exciting in any area I could think of, but even more so in brain development in children. I always loved getting to the bottom of things, and I am naturally very curious. I am just so amazed by the world we live in, the nature, the human body and mind and I love learning about the ‘mysterious workings of the world’. I am equally aware of the possibilities for change if we know which mechanisms make change possible and use our creativity to apply them.

What are the biggest challenges?

As researchers, we are very privileged to be able to work in a field of our interest. We should be very careful and responsible with our resources (keyword: tax payers’ money), be really productive and conduct relevant research. At the same time our research should be scientifically rigorous, and we should not bow to the pressure of publishing heaps of “sexy”, selling results, which have no substance. I also think that it is important that we communicate our results to the lay public and contribute to dialogue on relevant social, political or economic issues across disciplines. I consider it as a big challenge to follow all these ideals.

You are currently working abroad. How did a Swiss researcher end up in Australia?

The lab I work with at the moment is one of the most successful labs in my field and I always admired my now supervisor from far. I have been very lucky to getting the chance to working with Peter Anderson and his team. I have learnt so much and have had a very productive time. Studying and working abroad can help to build connections with leaders of one’s field, and broadens one’s horizons. You get to know a lot of people, a different work environment, a new work culture. It is a great experience and benefits not only professional but also personal development.

How often would you consider your job to be rewarding and how often do you also have to deal with rejection or feedback that makes you question your work?

I think in comparison to other jobs, you receive quite a lot of external feedback in research, which can be very nice, but also very frustrating. That can result in huge fluctuations of motivation. To stay balanced, I try to focus on my internal motives. For that reason, I experience my job to be rewarding almost every day: how exciting is it to be able to work in a field that you absolutely love? I also really enjoy reading, writing, supervising students, running analyses, improving my coding skills, discussing results with colleagues and working with children and their parents.

What did you want to be as a kid?

A world explorer!

For more on Ines Mürner-Lavanchy’s work and the work of her research group check out the following homepage/link. You can also find Ines on twitter: @MurnerLavanchy

Furthermore, we are excited to letting you know that @MurnerLavanchy and @bornascientist are currently collaborating on developing an information section on the relationship between preterm birth and brain development. Stay tuned for more!

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