We are shaped by the experiences we make and the people we meet. Mentorships are some of the most, when not the most, important relationships we build during our scientific careers. Different people of various ages and backgrounds may become your mentors. The key is to see a learning opportunity in front of you – no matter how old you are or what stage of your career you are in. There are two consecutive publications that have targeted the topic of “How to succeed in science“.  The importance of mentorship is depicted within a short anecdotal tale therein. It is about a young rabbit on its way to writing a PhD thesis. It is one of my favorite stories, so I illustrated it below.

In this section, we will be posting short interviews with researchers from all over the world and with various levels of expertise. Expe(e)rtise, since this is knowledge from your fellow peers. May these inspire, guide you or make you feel less lonely on your own bumpy road down all of the present or expected scientific highs and lows.


Original articles on how to succeed in science:




01/14/2018: Ines Mürner-Lavanchy is 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!

12/18/2017: Sophie von Stumm is Associate Professor for Developmental Psychology at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE). In her interview, she talks about her own, not always straight-forward way into science. She highlights how trying to fit into the expected structures of science bears the risk of compromising ones’ own interests. Sophie also shares challenges she faces in her career until today, and finds honest and encouraging words on how to deal with rejection.



Sophie von Stumm (33y), Associate Professor for Developmental Psychology at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)

 How did you get into research?

When I studied for my undergraduate degree in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London, I expected to build a career in Human Resources (HR) afterwards. To explore this possibility, I interned after the second year of my undergraduate studies for 3 months in the HR Department of a big, international company in Berlin. Within the first week I realised that I was neither cut out for HR nor for big, international companies. I spent my days staring at big clock on the wall in front of my desk, begging the clock hand to move faster so I could go for lunch or home. I completed the internship and returned to London to finish my degree and during that process I fell in love with doing my dissertation project. After that I knew I wanted to do more research projects, and so I registered for a Master of Science degree and then applied for PhD studentships.

What are the biggest challenges?

I think that one of biggest challenges that early career researchers face is avoiding to become lost in the professional structures of science. We live and work in times when hiring decisions and promotions depend heavily on metrics, for example the impact factor of the journal you publish in or how often your work has been cited by others (the so-called h-index). Also, early career researchers tend to be evaluated by the amount of grant money that they’ve secured: Getting grants is surely impressive but no guarantee for doing good research. The current structure of science can trick you into designing research that is more likely to be funded, rather than the one that you’re actually interested in. Trying to fit hiring and promotion criteria can distract from pursuing the research that we are passionate about.

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 receive rejections or feedback that critiques my work almost every day. If you get into science, you will soon learn that a substantial part of your job is asking others for things (for example publication, money, research support) — others who have the power to say ‘no’. At the best of times, they will tell you then why their answer was no. And that is when you learn and improve your work.

My first journal publication was my MSc dissertation. The re-write from the dissertation to publication format was traumatic. I was working with a fantastic team of senior scientists, who changed every single word and structure in my dissertation, before they agreed that the manuscript was ready for submission. I was devastated: All my brilliant phrases and witty paragraphs had been transformed into serious science writing. But I didn’t know that the real trauma was yet to come. The reviewers pointed out that my statistical analyses were completely flawed and inadequate, on top of asking for further re-writes of the text. For the next month, I holed up in defiant wrath, promising to never touch this manuscript or journal again. Then I swallowed my pride, sat down and started the analyses from scratch. Over the next few weeks I learned a lot about factor analysis, structural equation modelling, and the treatment of missing data. It took two more rounds of reviews until the paper was accepted. But when it was, I knew that its conclusions were based on accurate statistics (and that my stats skills were superb). I will not pretend that I thought the reviews were ‘nice’ but ultimately, they were constructive — they made the paper stronger and me a better scientist. I try to view all rejections and critiques from that perspective, although it’s of course a different question how successful I am with it.


Manuscript rejections are hard and maybe even crushing – especially around the holidays. However, there is always a little bit of truth and a chance to improve behind every critique (Illustration by Nora Maria Raschle @bornascientist.com).

Most of us enjoy the upsides of science, but how do you deal with rejections?

I have three key recommendations for how to deal with rejections.

First, take them slow: When I receive a notice of rejection for a paper, I often let it sit in my inbox for a few days until I know I am in the right frame of mind to read through the critique. I print reviewers’ comments and I work through them one by one, scribbling notes and responses to each. These notes are only for my eyes: They are the private space to express disagreement in various forms, including rude and angry if necessary. Then I drop the printout in a drawer for a week or two until I know I am ready to re-read the comments, understand them, and change the manuscript accordingly. It might strike you as a very slow process to deal with paper rejections but keep in mind that scientists tend to be emotionally attached to and proud of their research. At least for me, it takes time to transform the disappointment over a rejection into constructive revisions.

Second, be stubborn: redesign, rewrite, reanalyse and resubmit. Think carefully about what you need to do to improve your work so it becomes worth publishing. Then go and do it.

Third, celebrate when you submit: In a business where rejections are daily occurrences, make the moment count when you completed a piece of work that you are proud of. Don’t wait for the acceptance letter to crack open the champagne: It often comes after several rounds of revisions, by the time of which you will have moved on to a different research project and your excitement about your earlier work has lessened.

What did you want to be as a child?

A novelist. Failing that an actress.

Sophie von Stumm is also online: on twitter @hungrymindlab) and at her homepage www.hungrymindlab.com.


11/27/2017: Audrey Peyper is a PhD candidate in history, mother of two and writer on the subject of metal. This week, we are very excited to have not one, but three (!) experts involved in our interview. In the first part of our interview, Audrey talks about the challenges and excitements of academic life, but also shares her perspective as a scientist and mother of two young children. In the second part, her daughters Roxy and Angelique (4 and 7 years) talk about what they think their mom is doing, what they want to be once they grow up and what the best thing about their mom is.



Audrey Peyper (33y), (nearly finished) PhD Candidate in History,
University of Tasmania, Australia


How did you get into academia?

I wanted to create a job for myself that was interesting, so I kept studying!

What is your focus?

Historical economic theory, religious ideas concerning power and colonial sites influenced not by formal or ‘settler’ colonialism but rather economic imperialism and evangelism.

What is it that fascinates you about your topic?

Being able to interrogate questions of freedom, human rights, and formative processes of the modern world.

What are the biggest challenges?

The challenges are also the exciting part. The sites I work with in the colonial Pacific Islands misalign with many established models which is difficult to examine but prompts important questions. Access to archives is a practical challenge that requires a lot of travel and sometimes careful negotiation, alongside many hours of difficult reading (with some exciting discoveries!)

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for….

…a student deciding upon her/his field?

I would make two points. Firstly, to study a variety of subjects before settling in on a single field is a great way to bring a unique set of skills to your field, and will help differentiate you from others. Secondly, try to pursue the field that genuinely interests you, rather than thinking too much on potential work or money and so forth. The PhD is a long, difficult degree and it will be passion and interest that keep you going. Furthermore, you will be more successful in a field that you are passionate about and more likely to create a niche for yourself.

Do you feel that you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?

I have been at the University for 14 years now, all through my 20s and now into my 30s. This has meant a delay in other life things such as buying a house, being able to travel for leisure, accruing superannuation for retirement, and stability of housing and finances for an extended period of time. It can be exhausting! These things mean more once you have children, and it can really feel like you are ‘behind the pack’ for your age group in terms of becoming established in life.

What are the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance)? Can you give some advice on what worked best for you?

Definitely it is hard to balance the demands of young children, maintaining the house, and earning money alongside sustained research, especially if the research is unfunded or you are ‘between jobs’ (which is a lot of modern academic reality – moving from contract to contract). Getting enough work done to be a competitive academic when you have many things also making demands on your time and energy is a real challenge. Resolving this is not easy, and I have found that ‘compartmentalising’ time is important – to be very strict with what I am doing in a given block of time (whether research, spending time with children, or working, etc.) and not thinking on the other things in that time, to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

What are your distractions when you are not studying? Is there time for hobbies?

There is not much time (or money!) for hobbies but it is important to make time for things that make you feel happy or are good for your health. Exercise is something I am trying to do more often, though I am not so great at it! My main distraction is my interest in music. I write for a music magazine which is really exciting. I find this is a good task to take my mind off my research but also keeps me writing every day, as momentum is key to sustaining writing.

If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc..) what would they be?

  1. The heavy focus placed on amount of publications for postdoctoral fellowships, often rather than quality.
  2. The availability of teaching work for PhD students is diminishing yet many jobs require fairly extensive teaching experience including designing courses that simply isn’t available to many finishing candidates.
  3. Short term (1-3 year) contracts for fellowships or lectureships. It means that early career researchers have to move around the world frequently to secure work – while I don’t mind this in itself and it does make academia prohibitive to many, it is expensive to facilitate and creates in between periods of no income which is very hard on families.

Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a student?

To embrace a life of scholarship is, in many ways, its own reward. It won’t always be easy but be patient and have faith in yourself.

What did you want to be as a kid?

I wanted to be a famous artist!



Do you know what your mom is doing? How would you describe her work?

Angelique (7y): Her PhD is a really big book that is extremely important I think it is about when the islands battle across territory and stuff, historians look at history and write it down​.

Roxy (4y): I have no idea, I think it is about the things she likes.


Do you think that’s a fun job?

Angelique: No – because you just sit there typing and thinking, it sounds boring. But if I were a zoology researcher, I would learn about all the different animals and new ways of doing things.

Roxy: I want to be just like mummy.


What do you want to be one day?

Angelique: I would like to be a famous performer or singer, part of a band or acting troupe, or a zoologist.

What does your mom think about that?

Audrey (mom): My response… fantastic! a life in the performing arts is a lot of fun but also a lot of hard work! Zoology sounds fascinating.


Roxy: A paleontologist, and an artist and a ballerina.

What does your mom think about that?

Audrey: I think they go really well together!


What is the best thing about your mom?

Angelique: Fun, friendly, clever, talented.

Roxy: She hugs me and she loves me


11/20/2017: Psyche Loui is an Assistant Professor of Psychology, a musician and mother. In her interview she gives insights on what fascinated her to start studying music and the brain, how it is important to be fascinated by a scientific question while also focusing on learning the methods required, and highlights those challenges she would like to change within the academic system (i.e. missing transparency, publication biases and research funding).



Psyche Loui (36y), Assistant Professor of Psychology,
Neuroscience and Behavior, and Integrative Sciences at Wesleyan University

How did you get into research?

I have always loved music and played violin and piano from a young age. I also love science, and thought I was going to medical school to become a doctor. But during undergrad years at Duke University I realized from my classes that there is a field of research called Cognitive Neuroscience, where we can study things that might seem mysterious and unscientific, like our thoughts and perceptions and feelings, with the help of good experiment design and some useful tools such as brain imaging and electrical recordings from the brain. I learned that people were starting to use these tools to study how we hear and learn and form preferences for music, and I wanted to get in on it. I’ve been studying the Cognitive Neuroscience of music ever since.

What is your focus?

Music and the brain.

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

I love asking questions and finding answers to them. There are always important new questions that have not yet been asked, and there is always more to learn. I am also motivated to use what we learn to design something applicable to the general public.

What are the biggest challenges?

Everything always takes 10 times longer than you expect it to.

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for….

…a student deciding upon her/his field

Follow your passion. If there is some question that keeps you up at night, and if you love the process of pursuing that question, then that’s the field for you.

…a post-doctoral researcher

Start by pursuing the low-hanging fruit while learning some new techniques, then move on to more ambitious questions.

…a junior faculty

Spend the first year getting to know your colleagues and some students really well so that you can learn about the culture of your institution from multiple perspectives. Then you’ll have an easier time working within your system.

Do you feel that you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?

No. I have a longer commute than I’d like, but in general I have been quite lucky.

What are some of the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance) and do you have any advice to overcome these?

Students often want to meet at inconvenient times given my parenting schedule (I have a 2.5-year-old daughter and have to do all drop-offs and pickups for her daycare). I think one solution has been to use online tools as much as possible (online schedulers, chat programs e.g. Slack), but I am still figuring it out.

If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc..) what would they be? 

  1. Academia often operates in a shroud of secrecy under the guise of protecting the privacy and confidentiality of people involved. The result of this secrecy is that many important decisions in academia can be driven by a small number of individuals, each with their own biases and limited knowledge. I think most people would benefit overall if the system was more transparent.
  2. I wish my field placed less emphasis on a few selective journal outlets, and more on the quality and quantity of research ideas as a whole. The practice of evaluating a publication by the rejection rate of the journal in which it is published is ridiculous and unhealthy, and not conducive to academics’ main role of generating good knowledge.
  3. Research funding should be more evenly spread between labs and schools.

What did you want to be as a kid?
I wanted to be a writer. I guess I am one now, I just write about science!


Psyche Loui, above with her team from the MIND Lab – Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Lab at Wesleyan University, is also on twitter (@psycheloui) and available online through her homepages



11/13/2017: This week’s expert Elizabeth Parker, an academic mom and PhD candidate, talks about her fascinations for science and shares recommendations on how to keep a healthy work-life balance within this fast-pacing field.


Liyyz Parker (26y) and her son
Lizzy is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield (UK)


Elizabeth Parker

How did you get into research?

When I was choosing what to study at University, I knew I wanted to do Biology because I’d loved it at school, but I also wanted to continue with learning a language. Luckily I was able to do both, studying Biology at the University of Sheffield with an extra year in Dijon at the University of Burgundy. This meant my course was a year longer than most UK degrees and gave me lots of opportunity to try out working in a lab and get a better understanding of the research process … I enjoyed it so much that I decided to do a research Masters in plant and microbial biology. My Masters introduced me to the plant-soil-environment lab which I have worked in for five years now, as both a technician and PhD student.

What is your focus?

In my PhD research I work with a type of fungus called arbuscular mycorrhizae. These grow into the roots of about 80% of land plants and help the plant take up extra nutrients. In exchange, the plant provides carbon which is the fungus’ only energy source. We know that these fungi can benefit crop plants in many ways and I focus on how they help wheat to survive drought. We hope that this work will show us ways to maintain wheat yields as droughts become more severe and more common with climate change.

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

I love finding out about how the world works and how people find solutions to big problems. Sometimes the way people have worked out how to find new information is just as interesting as the information they’ve found!

What are the biggest challenges?

Often experiments fail or we ask the wrong questions. However it all feeds into working out a better way to get to the bottom of things. We learn how to do things better next time … but sometimes, when you’ve worked on something for months, and you’re physically and mentally exhausted, then it can be so depressing that your experiment has “failed”! At these times it’s important to remember why you love your research field and why you got into it in the first place.

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for a student deciding upon her/his field?

If you are applying for a masters or PhD then definitely make sure it is in a field you are passionate about. However, I would say that it’s not the only important factor. The scope of the project is also really important: will you have free rein or is there lots of built-in structure? Your supervisors will make a massive difference to your experience. I am very lucky to have had extremely supportive and understanding supervisors which has helped me grow in confidence with my academic work but has also been really important since I have been pregnant or breastfeeding for the whole of my PhD so far! PhDs last longer in some countries and it is definitely worth considering who you will be working with for that time as well as what you will be working on.

Do you feel you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?

I think sacrifice is a strong word! I would say at times I have compromised in order to be able to combine my academic work with other interests and commitments. For example, I lived in a different country away from my partner for a year to complete my undergraduate course which was tough but there were also lots of upsides (like amazing french pâtisseries!).

What are the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance)? Can you give some advice on what worked best for you?

At the moment I have a 16 month old who is still breastfed and I am part way through my confirmation review for my PhD. I am also helping prepare some science communication activities and trying to keep my experimental plants alive. I am full-time funded but I am only in work 4 days a week. So I have a few challenges with work-life balance at the moment!

Having said that, I think my work-life balance might be better than before I had a child. I try to stick to strict lab/office hours and always be home by a set time. Having clear priorities makes me plan really carefully and I think I find it much easier to say “no” to extra commitments than I used to. I know there is not much opportunity for over-spill which makes me very focused. Because I have an extra day at home with my son I feel less like I’m “missing out” on his childhood than if I worked 5 days a week and it also gives my brain some time to relax. I think this is really important in a PhD and it would definitely be my main piece of advice for others: do something else sometimes!

Is there time for hobbies?

I love my work but it’s not my whole life. Now that I have a toddler I spend A LOT of time in the park (which is lovely in Sheffield because we have so many to choose from). I also knit and try to grow some food in our tiny garden (though this is more difficult than I would like to admit as a plant scientist!).

If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc …), what would they be?

  1. Undergraduate funding in the UK is a big issue. The high fees and constantly changing goalposts for funding seem like they are shifting the emphasis of undergraduate degrees in a way which is causing problems for the whole academic system. Not only that but it may put off a lot of promising students because of issues with affordability or perceived value.
  2. There is a persistent idea that science is a slog and you have to work long hours. YES, you have to work, and sometimes the hours ARE long … but you can take a break and still do well.
  3. Linked to number 2, there seems to be a big taboo around mental health issues in academia. I think this is slowly starting to change but the competitive atmosphere of science can make it easy for people to burn out if good support structures aren’t in place.

Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a fellow scientist (older or younger) or any person interested in science?

Science is for everyone and if you are even remotely interested, you can participate. There are tonnes of citizen science projects out there where you can be involved in DOING science, not just hearing about it. https://www.zooniverse.org/projects is a great place to start where you can choose to help with projects as diverse as spotting galaxies, counting flowers for bees or sorting unidentified fossils.

What did you want to be as a kid?

When I was very young I wanted to be a lollipop lady. I just really liked their fluorescent coats. Then when I was a bit older I wanted to be a plumber or an artist.

What does your child want to be when they’re older and what is your response?

He’s a bit young to tell me, but based on his interests I’d say something with horses or trains! Or water or books or food or dogs … I want him to have a job that he loves!

You can also find Elizabeth on twitter: @parkerpannell


11/06/2017: This week’s expert Goren Gordon talks about his passion for the brain and his passion for quantum physics, about happiness, how to still keep a healthy work-life balance and shares advice to the upcoming generation of researchers.


Senior Lecturer, Head of the Curiosity Lab,
Tel Aviv University Israel (40y)


How did you get here?

My road was long and multi-disciplinary. I was 20 years a student in the university. I have a bachelor, masters and PhD in Quantum Physics, I have a bachelor in Medical Science and Masters in Business Administration and another PhD in Computational Neuroscience. I did my post-doc in MIT Media Lab in the Personal Robots Group. At almost any point in time I studied two degrees in parallel, because it was hard to reconcile my two great passions: quantum physics and the brain. In the end, I (almost) stopped my research in quantum physics and am now focusing on my admiration of the human capability to learn.

What is your focus?

My focus is Curiosity, from many different perspectives. I’m studying it using my physics background, by trying to formulate general equations of curiosity and building a mathematical model of curiosity. I’m implementing this model both in psychology and robotics. In psychology, I’m trying to use the model to better assess people’s curiosity, both adults and children. In robotics, I’m trying to create curious robots, that learn in similar ways to infants. The main goal is to understand infants by building infant-like robots.

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

I’m thinking in equations because of my physics background. I’m always trying to simplify complex concepts into their bare minimum and trying to find this “one equation of the human mind”. While I know that is probably not possible, the fun is in the road to find it. It fascinates me to see infants and children learn by themselves so much and so fast. I wonder whether we will ever understand and be able to replicate that in robots. Furthermore, I learned about the possibility of social robots for education of children and it fascinates me that children can benefit so much from interacting with a social robot. I’m trying to combine these two seemingly-separate ideas, curious robots and curious children. What will happen if children continually interact with curious robots, that express enjoyment of learning, ask questions and explore? Will the child become more curious? Can we thus influence, promote and overcome the reduction in curiosity as children grow old? These are the questions that fascinate me and which I’m trying to answer through my research.

What are the biggest challenges?

There are challenges from different perspective. From a more fundamental point of view, the challenge is to understand basic human behavior and use reductionism to try and find a single principle underlying learning. There are so many aspects and the variability in human behavior is so great, it sometimes seems hopeless to find unifying principles.

From a robotics perspective, robots are hard. The only thing you can be sure of a robot is that it will break. They always break. Then you need to fix them in the absolute knowledge they will break again. However, this tests the researcher’s grit which is one of the most fundamental qualities of a successful scientists.

Then there are logistics. I am trying to run large studies in the formal educational system. There are so many bureacrats  to deal with and so much logistics that it seems it is a full-time job just to coordinate the study, let alone run it, analyze it and publish it. But the gains from these large studies and the impact they may have are definitely worth the hassle.

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for….

…a student deciding upon her/his field

Choose a field you are deeply passionate about. Disregard other people’s opinions, the job market or fads and trends. Find something that makes you smile whenever you think about it and makes you wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose and joy. All the other things will come from that.

…a post-doctoral researcher

Work hard but remember to enjoy the journey. There is always more work that can be done, more experiments to do and more papers to write, but you do not want to look back at this period in time as “I suffer now for the future”. The post-doc can be a wonderful time to explore, meet your future colleagues and do exciting things.

…a junior faculty

Hire a lab manager! From the start. The amount of bureaucracy is unbelievable and a lab manager, no matter how much he costs, is always worth it. Don’t wait for big grants to finance him, just hire immediately. As for students and labs, there are different ways for PI-ing, probably a different one for each PI-student combination, can’t help there. But some things are universal: in the beginning, you have no help from “senior-students”, because … you don’t have senior students, so it’s all on you. You have to train your students, so do it well and invest the time, it will repay in the future.

Do you feel that you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?

I made some unorthodox decisions along the way, but I always had in mind to enjoy what I’m doing now and don’t worry too much about the future. I learned early on that if I do what I love, I do it well and it pays off. I did have to sacrifice for my post-doc, which I did not want to do, but in hindsight it was a good experience and aided my career a lot.

What are the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance)? Can you give some advice for the upcoming generation of researchers?

I read a lot about studies of happiness and there is a consensus on what makes people happy: surprise, surprise, it’s not work. It is their social circle and support. I actively invest energy and time to make the time to meet friends on a very regular and intense basis. I believe it is crucial and even though I have tons of work (don’t we all), I still make the time to play board games, meet friends, spend lots of time with the family. My best advice, which is probably the hardest to do, is to compartmentalize. When I’m at work I’m an orphan childless single researcher. When I’m at home, I’m an unemployed jobless father. If you can do that, everyone (including you) will be happy.

If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc..) what would they be?

I would create many more truly multi-disciplinary positions. Today, most universities still hire based on faculty, even though so many researchers today are doing extremely multi-disciplinary work. It is extremely hard to land a job in engineering when you work with robots and kids, and vice versa. The same is true for publication and grants. While everyone loves to say they’re multi-disciplinary, in the end they judge by their own discipline and that’s so 20th century.

Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a fellow scientist (younger or older) or any person interested in science?

In order to do science you’ve got to have the passion. Without it, you won’t be happy and you won’t succeed. If you are passionate, don’t let anyone take it away from you; not editors of journals, not jealous colleagues nor grant committees. If you want to be a scientist, then you probably dream of changing the world. Go and do it and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.

What did you want to be as a kid?

A scientist, from since I remember.

For more on Goren Gordon’s work visit his webpage: http://www.curiositylabtau.com/


10/29/2017: This week’s expert Hanna Dumont about educational research and remembering what science is actually about.


Postdoctoral research fellow,
German Institute for International Educational Research (34 years)


How did you end up in research?

I was still in high school, when the PISA 2000 study was published and revealed the high levels of educational inequality in Germany. I had a really great teacher who made the PISA study a topic in class. This is when I first learned about educational research. I don’t remember this, but my teacher told me many years later, when I had started my PhD in Educational Psychology that I told her back then, that I wanted to be an educational researcher.

What is your focus?

The early PISA findings that made me want to be in educational research also influenced my research focus: the study of educational inequalities! After having focused on factors in schools and families that cause inequalities I am now particularly interested in finding out, which pedagogical approaches can reduce inequalities.

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

There is always so much more to learn!

What are the biggest challenges?

Because there is always so much more to learn, you sometimes don’t know when to stop!

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for 

…a student deciding upon her/his field:

do what you are passionate about!

….a doctoral candidate choosing a topic an research group:

choose a topic that your advisor is an expert on!

….a postdoctoral researcher:

fake it till you make it!

We are all great in handling success, but what’s your mantra to handle rejections?

I remind myself what really counts in life ! Plus eating good food!

What are key challenges we have to overcome?

My impression is that the pressure to publish has increased in recent years. I hope that we don’t forget that science is about advancing knowledge not finding as many least publishable units as possible.


10/24/2017: This week, Tobias Hauser, postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry in London, talks about his career path and experiences.


Postdoctoral research fellow,
Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry in London (33 years)


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 and 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.

Personal Homepage/Links:


twitter: @tobiasuhauser


10/15/2017: Siobhan Pattwell is a postdoctoral research fellow and recipient of an early career research fellowship by the Jacobs Foundation for Youth Development. Check out her interview below to read more about Siobhan’s story on how she got into science, the motivational lines that keep her going and the challenges and exciting rewards science has brought.


Postdoctoral research fellow,
Holland Lab, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (34 years)


How did you get here?

I never had even the most remote dreams or plans to be a scientist. In fact, I never really enjoyed science labs in school – probably because they felt like busy work, took forever, and the teacher always knew the results beforehand. After switching my major several times in college (where I actually entered as a pre-law major), I finally settled on a combination of Spanish and Neuroscience with a pre-med track. I was fully geared up to spend a semester abroad in Spain. That specific semester unfortunately coincided with a peak in the ETA terrorist attacks in Spain, including the Madrid train bombings, and after some deliberation with my parents, it was decided that I would skip the trip.

With the spring semester well underway, I was incredibly fortunate to find a spot on London summer abroad program focusing on healthcare systems between the US and UK, organized by two amazing Lafayette College professors, Drs. Childs and Lammers. To say this trip was an eye-opener for me would be the understatement of my college career. As part of the program, we were given internships 4 days a week. Mine was at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital with one of the most incredible physician-scientists I have ever met, Dr. Penelope “Peppy” Brock. Peppy is a consultant (senior physician) pediatric oncologist specializing in neuroblastoma at one of the most esteemed children’s hospitals in Europe. Needless to say, my world in the hallways at GOSH, as an aspiring medical student, was flipped upside-down. In awe of the dedicated staff of nurses, physicians, assistants, and therapists, I myself became increasingly frustrated at the lack of research and limited treatment options for some of the extremely rare cancer variants claiming the lives of the adorable British-accented children I played puzzle games with between exams. At one point, after asking Peppy (probably too many) questions about has “X” ever been tried, has “Y” ever been looked at, etc., she turned her head and with an enthusiastic smile said, “Oh, darling, you’re a scientist.” Peppy was right. I realized that summer that I needed to be the person who would try to understand some of these rare genetic events, to seek targets for better drugs, to search for novel treatment options. So, instead of taking the MCAT that summer like I had planned, I registered for the GRE a few weeks after the internship and the rest – is history.

 What is your focus?

With a background in neuroscience, I have long been interested in the brain’s capacity for change – both in normal and abnormal plasticity.  By exploring the role of growth factors – certain chemicals important for brain development – I hope to gain a better understanding of what makes certain pediatric conditions – ranging from brain tumors to psychiatric illnesses – difficult to treat and often subsequently treatment resistant. With a general fascination in neuroplasticity, I am particularly interested in how various factors can influence the development, survival, and behavior of various cell types within and outside the brain, both in normal development and in disease states ranging from psychiatric and neurological illness to cancer.

What is it that fascinates you about science?Siobhan.jpg

The most exciting thing about science, in my opinion, is the possibility for discovering something new and seeing it for the very first time. Such novel discoveries may have been overlooked for decades and can often bring hope for further advancing science, medicine, policy, and ultimately lead to the development of new treatments for various illnesses or diseases.

What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenges go hand in hand with the most fascinating aspects. When seeking something new, you can’t just ‘google’ the right experiments to do or ask somebody if you found the right answer, since what you’re doing often has never been tried before. It’s a whole new way of thinking compared to the memorization of science classes or textbook learning in primary or secondary school. Often, there are many late nights and endless weekends in lab going through failed experiment after failed experiment, until maybe on the 100th try, something works!

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for….

…a student deciding upon her/his field

My advice – this sounds like a joke, haha, it’s not – would be to invest in copies of Finding Nemo and Frozen. My friends and I often quoted Dory from Finding Nemo and would say “Just Keep Swimming” or even better, when experiments failed routinely, we were known to blast some Elsa in lab while singing along to “Let it go…” There will be a lot of times when you think things will never work and while some experiments may not, others may take 99 failures before the 100th time is a success.

 Do you feel that you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?

While working long lab hours during graduate school is almost a given, the biggest sacrifice for me came after my PhD was completed. I was planning to start a postdoctoral project in NYC, where I had my apartment, my friends, family, etc. Just as I was joining the lab, it was announced that the group was moving 3,000 miles away to Seattle, Washington. I was really invested in the project and wanted to see my ideas through, so with the encouragement of my family, friends, and significant other, I made the move, which has meant A LOT of red-eye flights back and forth across the country. I always try to make as many weddings, showers, holidays, birthdays, as I can, while also not sacrificing experiments, so I guess the biggest sacrifice I’ve made is sleep….which, as a neuroscientist, I know is an important one!

What are the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance)? Can you give some advice for the upcoming generation of researchers?

As mentioned above, I could certainly do with a little more sleep. I’m also somebody who goes crazy if I don’t have physical exercise built into my day, so I try to make it a priority to get up earlier than I’d probably like and go to the gym, go for a run, or take a spinning or barre class. It’s also important to schedule in some fun time, whether it’s drinks with friends after work, a hike, or brunch on the weekends, doing things outside of lab is important for maintaining sanity in the lab!

If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc..) what would they be? 

  • The publication process is exceedingly slow. By the time most things have gone through peer review and are published, the projects have often been completed almost a year prior. This pace can be detrimental to novel avenues of research, can take up extra funding, and slow down the forward trajectory of a graduate or postdoctoral project.
  • Funding – it’s pretty depressing to get a grant application back and see things like “Weaknesses: none,” or “Outstanding application,” only to find that it missed the funding level by less than one percent. Funding opportunities, especially at the government level, are becoming less and less and it’s often very difficult for younger researchers to access funds when their applications are up against those of more senior investigators for review.
  • Salary – scientists work such long hours that often the pay grade does not match the effort, especially when compared to other careers. It can be frustrating to calculate the $/hour when one has worked an 80 hour week compared to what that would equate to in a non-academic job.

Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a fellow scientist (younger or older) or any person interested in science?

I would say it’s an absolutely fantastic and rewarding career – but it requires a lot of self-discipline and perseverance. There will be A LOT of failed experiments, project setbacks, grant or journal rejections before there will be success. The hours worked will also not remotely match the pay. If science and discovery is something you are truly interested in, I’d encourage you to go for it at 1,000mph, but if you’re looking for a 9-5 job with weekends off and a big paycheck to match, you might be happier to try something else first.

What did you want to be as a kid?

I flipped back and forth between wanting to be a veterinarian or an architect as a kid – at one point, I even used a bright colored ruler and colored pencils to draft the blueprints for my own veterinary office. I think my parents still have the blueprints at their house.

Cat or a dog person?

Dog person! If I had the time or space, I’d absolutely be the crazy dog lady with hundreds of them.
To know more about Siobhan visit her research gate profile. Dr. Siobhan Pattwell is also an early career research fellow by the Jacobs Foundation for Youth Development.


09/30/2017: Our first interview partner and expert is Jennifer Zuk, who is by the way also creator of the anatomically (almost) correct brain model displayed in our cooking corner.


PhD Candidate, Harvard University (30 years)



How did you get here?

I have dedicated my time to exploring my interests at the intersection between developmental cognitive neuroscience, clinical speech-language pathology, and music. My path has taken many unexpected turns and led me to experiences I could not have even imagined would have been possible. After completing my undergraduate training in music education and cognitive science, I found myself fascinated by research on how music affects the brain. I followed this interest by working in research, and then discovered more about the clinical implications of this work. I had the opportunity to work with children and adults with communication disorders, which led me to be further fascinated by the potential clinical translation of this line of inquiry. Yet, I also felt the need to better understand traditional clinical approaches to speech and language development in order to then consider the role of music in contributing to this field. Following these interests led me to the Harvard PhD program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology, which has allowed me to pursue clinical training in speech-language pathology in addition to a research-based doctoral degree.

What is your focus?

I aim to further our understanding of speech, language and reading development to improve effective methods that may facilitate optimal quality of life for those who experience limitations in these domains. My current research focuses on studying brain and behavioral development of young children from infancy to school age utilizing neuroimaging methods. In particular, I have been examining how musical abilities relate to speech, language, and literacy development. This work seeks to determine whether musical experience may a protective or compensatory role in shaping development.

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

I am fascinated by the powerful potential for research to impact change. It is remarkable to see the ways in which research can provide evidence to inform best practices and guide policy. I am motivated by the potential of research to inform clinical practice and guide our decisions about how we can best serve ourselves, our well-being, and our communities.

What are the biggest challenges?

To me, some of the biggest challenges come from the reality that research is a long, careful, tedious, and slow process. It is essential to maintain a strong source of intrinsic motivation, and trust that this long process is leading us somewhere. As scientists, we contribute small pieces of evidence that collectively have the potential to make a significant impact but this is a process that takes time, patience, and perseverance.

What is your approximate success/rejection rate for (papers/grants/job applications)?

To me, an important question here is how many times has one tried for certain opportunities. On the first try, my success rate is probably less than 10%. However, the key to my success has been perseverance. I did not get into PhD programs the first time I applied, but I learned about what is critical to prepare and consider through the rejection process and when I applied the next time, ended up in my topic choice program. I have since obtained multiple fellowships to support my graduate training, but it took rounds of resubmissions to obtain these achievements. When it comes to papers, grants, and career opportunities, I’ve found it essential to recognize that it is impossible to think you’ll get everything you try for but the key is to see what you can learn from every experience and let that inform how you proceed.

We are all great in handling success, but what is your mantra to handle rejections?


Perseverance. Sometimes you just have to pick yourself up and keep going.

Which music do you listen to:

….when your hypothesis crumbles

Shake it out by Florence and the Machine

….when your experiment succeeds

Anything can happen by Ellie Goulding

….to represent your research topic

My topic focuses on music itself!

Are you a cat or dog person?