Do you ever feel like your week is just a rollercoaster of emotions? That one day you feel anxious and ruminate about some small problem that seems immensely, while the next day things suddenly look brighter, and that anxious feeling is completely gone? This is called mood swings, or mood variability. You might recognize mood swings as something that adolescents go through or remember that you went through a phase of more mood swings. While an increase in mood swings during adolescence is normal development, mood swings have also been shown to precede mood problems, such as anxiety and depression, later in life. Therefore, it is important to understand when these mood swings occur, what affects them, and how they work in the brain.

The development of mood swings

Mood variability can be calculated by looking at the difference in mood. In the research in the SYNC lab, mood was measured once a day for five consecutive days, so mood variability is the difference in mood between days. In this blog post the research done in the SYNC lab will be discussed, specifically the research done on the effect of COVID-19 on mood variability and if mood variability is associated with brain structure. As you might have experienced yourself, or seen in adolescents around you, mood swings indeed increase during adolescence, especially girls show a peak in mood variability around 15 years old (preprint). Boys also showed an increase in mood variability during adolescence, but the peak was not as prominent as in girls. Thus, during normative development a peak in mood swings is found in mid-adolescence, but external factors might affect this trajectory. For example, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on mood variability has been studied.

Mood swings and the COVID-19 pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown prolonged increased variability was seen in adolescents (Green et al 2021). This meant that not only adolescents around 15 years old experienced increased mood variability, but this was also seen in older adolescents. That was not all. The young people that experienced increased mood swings were also more likely to experience family stress, meaning that they felt they did not want to be home as there was tension at home. They were also more likely to experience inequality of opportunity in online home schooling, showing that inequality and the way young people feel are related. The same study showed that the longer the pandemic lasted, positive mood decreased, especially in young adolescents. This might be because of all the changes caused by the pandemic, including less time with peers, schools closed et cetera.

Mood swings and brain development

How does this work in the brain? We know that mood swings are changing throughout adolescents, and that the brain is still developing (Casey et al 2008), are these two related? To answer this question participants underwent an MRI scan for three consecutive years. We looked at the size of brain regions, especially regions in the cerebral cortex and investigated if the size of these regions was related to how much mood varied. Brain regions that are involved in emotion regulation were studied, since these regions are thought to regulate mood variability. We found that adolescents with a thicker dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) compared to peers of the same age, showed higher levels of mood variability in early and mid-adolescence (link to preprint). The dlPFC is a region in the frontal cortex, and it responsible for cognitive control. When it comes emotion and mood, the dlPFC is most likely involved in emotion regulation (Etkin et al 2015). Usually during adolescence, this region decreases in thickness as a result of the normal development of the cortex. If adolescents show a thicker dlPFC, this might mean that their development is slower compared to their peers. A more slowly developing (emotional) control system might therefore result in less inhibition of the mood swings, and therefore larger or more mood swings. It is thought that the cognitive control regions in the brain develop more slowly than the regions responsible for the generation of emotion during adolescence (Mills et al., 2014), and this might also cause the mood swings seen in adolescence.

To sum up, this rollercoaster of mood of adolescents is associated with brain development. Because of their brains still being under development, adolescence is both a vulnerable time and a time of opportunities. Besides the relation with brain development, mood swings can also be affected by external stressors such as a pandemic as well as positive influences such as social support. Altogether, our research has shown that an increase in mood swings during adolescence is common and aligns with structural brain development. Moreover, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a warning sign for any future feelings of anxiety or depression.

Our preprint on mood swings during adolescent development and the link with brain structure and sleep has just been published on bioRxiv and can be found here: https://biorxiv.org/cgi/content/short/2022.08.23.505008v1

References

Casey, B. J., Getz, S., & Galvan, A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Developmental review, 28(1), 62-77.

Etkin, A., Büchel, C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The neural bases of emotion regulation. Nature reviews neuroscience, 16(11), 693-700.

Green, K. H., van de Groep, S., Sweijen, S. W., Becht, A. I., Buijzen, M., de Leeuw, R. N., … & Crone, E. A. (2021). Mood and emotional reactivity of adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic: short-term and long-term effects and the impact of social and socioeconomic stressors. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 1-13.

Mills, K. L., Goddings, A. L., Clasen, L. S., Giedd, J. N., & Blakemore, S. J. (2014). The developmental mismatch in structural brain maturation during adolescence. Developmental neuroscience, 36(3-4), 147-160.

Research that concerns young people is best carried out together with young people. After all, young people are the experts on how they experience the world. By actively involving young people and other social partners in research, the SYNC Lab aims to bridge the gap between science and society, with the objective of improving science and informing youth about their behavioral and neural development. Here, the ‘Brainlinks’ project is no exception. ‘Brainlinks’ is a longitudinal (f)MRI study in which neuroimaging, behavioural research, hormonal research and questionnaires come together. Young people between the ages of 9 and 21 participate three times over a period of 5 years. To get a better idea of how participants experienced participating in the ‘Brainlinks’ study, we organized a so-called ‘co-evaluation’ session: an evaluation with young people who participated in the research, with the aim of improving research in the future.

Results and lessons from the general evaluation of the ‘Brainlinks’ study

To get a good idea of how young people experienced their participation in ‘Brainlinks’ and to learn from it, 14 young people participated in co-evaluation sessions, in two groups of 6 and one group of 2. Through various work formats (e.g., think-pair-share), we invited participants to share their positive and negative experiences surrounding the study.  During these co-evaluation sessions we, as researchers, tried to create an informal atmosphere in which participants could freely share their experiences with each other and the researchers. Finally, for the areas of improvement that were suggested, participants also came up with concrete solutions directly. A good number of do’s emerged from the sessions, which future research can benefit from. What was immediately visible is that most tips we received to enhance motivation and improve participants’ experiences were in line with social determination theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000): providing participants with autonomy (through providing choice options) and relatedness (by providing a meaningful rationale about why participation is relevant). The tips provided here can help researchers who aspire to start a (longitudinal) (f)MRI study.

Do’s for longitudinal fMRI research

  1. Try to give young people as much control as possible by offering choices. This allows research days to be as enjoyable as possible and allows youth to feel like they have a say in how the research day goes.
    1. Let participants choose the time of participation when they know they will be rested.
    2. Let participants choose whether they want to start with behavioral tasks and questionnaires, or with the scan. Keep in mind that consistency is important in longitudinal (fMRI) research, but try to be flexible where possible.
    3. If a large part of your study consists of questionnaires, consider giving participants the option of completing them at home in advance.
  2. Tell young people (where possible) why their participation (and the separate parts of the study) is/are important: awareness of the importance of participation increases involvement and motivation!
  3. Try to bring as much variety as possible in places where this is possible, without influencing your research results with it.
  4. For hormone collection through saliva, it can be helpful if participants get some kind of tips and tricks on how to collect the saliva. Think of a fun way to communicate this, for example an instructional video in which peers demonstrate it.
  5. If you use a lot of questionnaires in your research, make sure that they can also be read out to the participant. This is nice for participants with dyslexia or participants for whom a lot of reading is an obstacle.
  6. Use different forms of communication for sending reminders: email, text message, WhatsApp, while still keeping an eye out for privacy: keep personal information with a password!

Tips for communicating your results to young people

With a few of the participants we also evaluated the way in which research results can best be communicated with young people. Using social media seems to be a good way to make science available to young people, but “don’t be a boomer, don’t do TikTok dances!”, as one of our participants pointed out. So what does work?

Do’s for sharing research results with young people

  1. Use the most popular form of social media, for example Instagram and TikTok.
    1. Provide subtitles when you post videos (so they can be viewed without earbuds)
    2. Provide professional and pleasant visual design with your own house style
  2. Collaborate with schools and museums, ask teachers to use your videos or give workshops
  3. Keep it short!

The next aim for our future studies and projects is to also include young people in the creation of studies, by means of co-creation. With co-creation, citizens are an active part of the construction of the study, resulting in science which is relevant for those about whom the research is conducted. Likewise, the results from the co-evaluation sessions provide a good starting point for researchers who want to start a longitudinal (f)MRI study in such a way that it is also a good match with young people as participants, making research more fun and more approachable for our future generation.

In September 2020, I found out I was pregnant. I was overjoyed when I found out, as my husband and I had been wanting to start a family. I was also scared. Not of having a baby, but of what this decision would mean for my academic career. I was just approaching the end of my PhD and had little more than a year left to finish my dissertation. As an ambitious young researcher, I was afraid that this decision would affect the quality of my dissertation, the way people regard and treat me as a researcher, and my future opportunities on the job market. I was anxious that my pregnancy would result in an increased workload for colleagues, and worried whether it would be possible to be a good mom and a good employee at the same time. I even remember that I was sometimes relieved that my co-workers could not see my growing belly as we were all working remotely at the time, because I was unsure whether this would cause them to think differently about me. Unsurprisingly, I was quite nervous when I told my supervisors about my pregnancy, but they turned out to be very happy for me and highly supportive. Together, we drafted a plan to finish my dissertation before my maternity leave. Five weeks prior to the birth of my son I handed in my dissertation – which was approved on the day of his birth, and I put my career worries to rest to focus on my son’s arrival.

Fast forward to August 2021, when I returned to work after four months of maternity leave. Beginning work again led to mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt excited. I love doing research, collaborating with my colleagues, and I craved it to think deeply about exciting scientific problems again. Becoming a mother had not at all diminished my ambition to become an excellent researcher, and I felt a need to prove this to others. At the same time, I was nervous – how will I handle being away from my tiny baby for so long? Will I succeed in combining work, breastfeeding, and picking up my baby on time at daycare? Will I be plagued by brain fog after being out of office for four months – or because of the six times that I still must attend to my son each night? Now, 10 months after returning to work, I decided to review the validity of my worries. Is working in academia harder as a (new) mom? And how can we help (new) moms to continue to excel in academia?

Life as an academic mom: challenges and opportunities

When women in academia become pregnant, some of them must still deal with comments such as: “You have just committed academic suicide”. Luckily, I work in a totally different environment, where supervisors and colleagues were extremely supportive of my decision to have a baby and of my re-integration at work after maternity leave. Nonetheless, I struggled in the first months after returning to work. My determination that becoming a mom would not impact my academic career proved to be naïve. For example, expressing breastmilk during work hours proved to be much more difficult that I expected. First, although my university has nursing mother’s rooms, this is not always taken care of at other locations where work meetings take place. Once, I was directed to a room with no heating and glass walls – an entire parking lot could see me, which does not exactly help with successful milk expression. Even when nursing mother’s rooms are in place, there are often a lot of women who need to use them at the same time, and it is often unclear whether a room is available or not. But what I found most difficult is that pumping took a lot of time – it is not without reason that moms in the Netherlands can take up 25% of their work hours to pump or breastfeed. It was also hard to predict at what time I would be pumping at a given day, which made it extremely difficult to plan meetings. I would often feel guilty about having to skip or reschedule meetings, and apart from the guilt I often regretted that I missed out on interesting meetings. Pumping made me feel like I was an unreliable and unavailable colleague, but at the same time I felt a need to do what was best for my child. This was one of the first times that I experienced that, despite my intentions, motherhood did affect my work. It proved not to be the last time.

In the months that followed, I had to deal with various challenges related to being a working mom. Sometimes, I could not work for days in a row because my child was ill, and he could not attend daycare. Although I lucked out with a husband who takes on a lot of childcare and household responsibilities, I often stayed home with our son when he was ill because my work hours as an academic are more flexible. Other challenges that mothers encounter relate to having difficulty attending (international) conferences, worries about producing less output in the year that my child was born, worries about tenure, having to deal with short-term contracts that provide no sense of stability for your family, and dealing with sleepless nights and the resulting problems with concentrating during work hours. Parenthood can also make writing more difficult: this process requires flow, concentration, and several uninterrupted hours of work. I often find myself in that flow at the end of my working day, which is now disturbed because I must pick up my child from daycare. That I am not the only mother struggling with such challenges becomes apparent in recent blogs, such as ‘Mama is an Academic’, which addresses issues such as how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit the careers of academic moms, who could write fewer papers due to increased care tasks.

Luckily, a few months into motherhood, conversations with my mentors and efforts such as Mom Inc made me realize that although being a working mom comes with challenges, this does not mean that I have become less of a researcher. Conversations with my colleagues revealed that they did not at all think that becoming a mother had made me a less valuable colleague, and they appreciated my openness about how I tried to combine work and motherhood. Later, I found out that becoming a parent may actually lead to a whole new skill set. After having a child, I quickly realized that my son provided me with an increased sense of purpose. As a developmental psychologist I was already concerned with creating the best possible future for young people, but now this has much more personal meaning to me. Other qualities that can come with parenthood include improved leadership qualities, efficiency, increased empathic abilities, prioritizing, saying no, and delegating. In my own work, for example, I have noticed that I am starting to become better at prioritizing tasks that actually benefit my career, instead of helping others with all kinds of small tasks – simply because I have to. It has surprised me that matrescence, the process of becoming a mother, has brought me much personal growth, and it is time to recognize these additional qualities in the workspace instead of viewing motherhood as incompatible with excelling at work.

What you can do to help new moms to continue to excel in academia

Our society needs healthy, happy children, as they represent the future. It would be a shame to lose excellent female researchers because they feel that they cannot fulfill the role of mother and academic at the same time. Luckily, there are things we can do to prevent the loss of talented moms from academia, three of which I outline below.

  1. Create an environment in which scientists are supported with their family life. Make them feel safe and comfortable, so that they have no fear of announcing a pregnancy or do not feel guilty of taking on the care of young children or other care giving tasks.
  2. Talk to academic moms about how you can support them. This can be done on an individual level to help one mom out, but universities could also benefit from asking moms how their talent can be retained instead of lost due to temporary rush hours in life.
  3. Change the definition of academic success. Now and in the past, academic success has often been defined as publishing a lot of papers and traveling the world (e.g., for conferences, lab visits, or new job opportunities). These metrics of success are racist, sexist, and fail to capture the breadth of individuals’ meaningful scientific impacts.

This is by no means an extensive list of what we can do to support moms in academia – many more possibilities have been listed here and here.

With this blog, I hope to have given you insight into wat it means to combine motherhood and academic work. Although being a mom in academia comes with various challenges, motherhood can also lead to new qualities that should be valued in the workspace. More importantly, there are many things that we can do to support moms in academia. What will you do to help a (new) mom in the next couple of months?

The World Happiness Report showed some noteworthy conclusions this year. This is a global survey for which around 1000 people per country in nearly 150 countries give answers to questions about their life. The questions concern life satisfaction, mood, but also support and help that is received and given to others. The survey showed two remarkable trends. Sadness increased as the pandemic went on, but kindness increased too.

This made me think of our own results, our studies in young people during the pandemic.  I moved to Erasmus University April 2020, at the moment when the pandemic had hit us for 2 weeks. My lab was all prepared to set up studies but we shifted our priorities and devoted all our attention to studying the needs of young people. If we did research on the adolescent brain for 20 years, isn’t now the time to devote all our attention to making that knowledge accessible?

Just like the World Happiness study, we investigated every six months the mood levels and helping behavior in young people between ages 10-25-years. We found that indeed mood was affected by the pandemic, the longer the pandemic lasts, the more negative feelings and the lower the levels of vigor. This was especially the case for young people between ages 16-24-years, a period that is known for a rise in psychiatric illnesses. The number of people with symptoms of mental disorders dramatically increased in two years’ time, from 11% to 18%, depending on the specific study. And this number had previously been stable for many years.

But there was also this other trend. Young people showed high levels of providing emotional support to others. This peaked at the age of 16 years; in this period of life young people gave the most support to their friends. We expected that this behavior would decrease when the pandemic lasted longer. There would be fewer possibilities to see each other and possible tiredness of this long period of social isolation. But we observed the opposite: Helping and supporting others increased. This was true for both helping friends and helping family. So just like the World Happiness report showed: sadness increased, but kindness did as well.

We have known for a long time that giving to others, offering support, and volunteering boosters people’s positive feelings. This is what we observed with surveys, but also in brain imaging research. There is a region deep in the brain, referred to as the ventral striatum. This region becomes active when we experience pleasures, such as receiving rewards. But this same region also becomes more active when we receive social rewards, such as compliments or being accepted online. And our recent studies show that we also activate this area of the brain when we do something good for others that are close to us, such as our family or friends. The activity in this region of the brain peaks in mid-adolescence. The adolescent brain seems wired to connect.

We are now very interested in how kindness extends to people we do not know. Of course, it is easy to be kind to people close to you, you like them and familiarize yourself with them. You may even expect reciprocity. But people also help others who they don’t know, and possibly never meet again. We found for example, that when you ask adolescents to divide 10 values tokens between themselves and a stranger, someone they do not know and will never meet personally, adolescents give away 30% of their valuable goods. This extended during the pandemic crisis to 70% when the stranger was a medical doctor, a Covid-19 patient, or someone with a poor immune system.

We also observed the pleasure of giving in the brain. Intriguingly, adolescents who give more to charity, also show more reward feelings in reward centers of the brain when they win money for their charity. Even when this comes at the expense of their own gains. Also, people who naturally have the tendency to take the perspective of others into account, show more activity in this reward area of the brain.

Crisis situations like a pandemic cause extreme hardships and inequality. We observed that young people with difficult home situations, with less support from their parents, experienced the most tension. But we also observed resilience in young people. They were kind to others during the pandemic. They developed programs to connect citizens, they delivered meals to people who could not leave their house. This is not only for the benefit of society; it also helped the young people themselves. Helping was associated with increased feelings of vigor.

The world that we leave for the next generation is not as perfect as we would have hoped. There are high geopolitical tensions, multiple crises, like the pandemic and the climate crisis. And these crises increase social inequality. The question that I would like to pose here, is not whether our current leaders can solve everything. The question is whether we give enough possibilities for young people to express what they want. We observed in our data that 81% of the young people in our studies felt that their opinion was important to take into account in policy making during the pandemic, 62% felt that they could make a serious contribution to policy on the way out of the pandemic, and only 7% of the young people felt that their opinions were taken into account by policy makers.

If sustainable, kindness that emerged during the pandemic may provide grounds for hope and optimism in a world of geo-political tension, and more crises to come. But we do need to think more about how to hear the voices of the people who will live on this planet the longest. They have voices that are worth to be heard, ideas that may be more flexible and out of the box, and they have an intrinsic need to connect and contribute.

In my PhD project, I study how adolescents develop into contributing members of society and, more specifically, how they contribute to their social environment by being socially engaged. For example, this entails helping close others, such as friends and family, as well as more distant others, such as society (e.g., volunteering work). A significant portion of my day-to-day work studying adolescents’ societal contributions consists of working independently on writing papers and analyzing data. Indeed, a PhD entails working on your own scientific research and thereby specializing in a specific topic. However, there is also the other side of the PhD coin. My PhD project also includes research projects in which I intensively work together with colleagues, students, etc. It is precisely these collaborations that make my PhD so exciting and fulfilling. Throughout the first 1.5 years of my PhD, I learned about the importance of working together with others. Especially now that we can meet in person after the lockdowns and working-from-home regulations, I truly appreciate these collaborative efforts or, in other words, ‘team science’. I am honored that I get to do a PhD in the SYNC lab, as I am not only studying how adolescents are socially engaged, but I also have the chance to be socially engaged myself.

In this blog, I will share some of my experiences of team science.

Research

One of the clearest examples of team science in my PhD is the behavioral and MRI data collection of the Brainlinks study. is a longitudinal project in which we invite 142 adolescents between the ages of 9 to 19 to visit our MRI lab 3 times. During these lab visits, adolescents fill out several questionnaires and perform experimental tasks, not only on a computer but also in an MRI scanner. We are currently at the third wave of data collection and have invited up to 107 participants so far, aiming to include approximately 130 participants before summer 2022. Because data collection involves hard work, it is impossible to do this on your own. During the preparation phase, an amazing team of colleagues helped me by setting up this data collection and by answering all my questions. While collecting the behavioral and MRI data, I get significant help from the Brainlinks team consisting of research assistants and students who not only assist in all the behind the scenes (e.g., calling participants and their parents), but also supervise participants during the lab visits. This team contributes to get the most out of this project with their individual commitments and talents. The collaborative effort in data collection is one of my favorite aspects of my work in science.

Education

Another major aspect of my PhD project in which I experience team science is education. Besides tutoring bachelor students in clinical psychology courses at the ESSB faculty, I also supervise bachelor and master students with their theses. In my experience, students are eager to learn more about their thesis topics and come up with interesting research questions they want to tackle. I appreciate their motivation to work together to get the most out of their thesis and I notice how they come up with interesting research ideas based on their questions and statistical results. These theses being reciprocal projects – while I supervise them, they teach me new things too – makes it one of the reasons why I enjoy teaching.

Team science

These examples of working together are a fundamental part of my PhD. All in all, I am convinced that the power of science lies in collaborative efforts. Team science involves combining all talents and expertise, such that everyone within a team can dedicate his or her own uniqueness to create something together.

Now that the data collection phase in my PhD is almost coming to an end – the last lab visits are scheduled mid-June – I am curious to see how team science will play a role during the remainder of my PhD. I will not only work on the papers for my PhD, but I am also excited for other projects I will hopefully encounter. Based on my recent experiences with amazing co-authors on my first first-author paper and, for example, the science festival Expeditie NEXT the SYNC lab was a part of, I already know that I do not have to worry about this.

The need to share

One of the gratifying elements of science is being able to share your findings, and here at the SYNC lab we definitely agree with this sentiment. There is an increased need to focus on Open Science practices and reproducibility in a cohesive way. However, when it comes to these practices there are many things to consider and it may be difficult to see what options researchers have available to them. This is where data managers and researchers can work together and come to the rescue, as we are working hard to try and make the Open Science journey as easy as possible!

 Own experiences

I joined the SYNC lab as a data manager in November 2021, and it immediately became clear that Open Science is important to the SYNC lab. My first big assignment was to clean data and provide a new data structure for the Braintime study, using the Brain Imaging Data Structure method, or BIDS. As a community developed tool, BIDS is a method that can be applied to neuroscientific research involving brain imaging. Because this method was used, the organization of the data from this study is now in line with other studies using the BIDS method, making it easier to share findings and to replicate studies. Other projects like The Urban Rotterdam Project are being structured and managed in similar ways, with a focus on shareability.
Within our lab we also make use of what we call the SYNC lab wiki. Essentially, this wiki acts as a working guide for members of our lab and is a living and collaborative document that we are actively updating. This lab wiki aims to provide support, information and templates for open science, data management/analysis, and outreach practices.
Additionally, we have been working on creating a data sharing protocol that will be shared on this website. This protocol will include information on our use of Data Request Forms and Data Sharing Agreements for our projects and aims to make it easier for us and outside parties to make use of our data in a responsible manner.

Making it easier

Next to my own activities regarding Open Science, I am also involved in assisting our researchers; how can we make it as easy as possible to implement Open Science for them? There is a great desire to share as much of our projects as possible, but not necessarily the exact know-how on how to conduct Open Science. Therefore, with our Open Science core-team we are currently developing what we like to call a ‘stamp card’; a list of Open Science practices that can be applied to your research. With this stamp card we aim to provide clarity and to illustrate the many the options researchers have available to them when it comes to Open Science. We like to think of our stamp card as a kind of buffet, from which our researchers can select certain options to apply to their research project as if they are choosing what to eat.
With our stamp card we divide the research cycle into the following categories: preparation of a study, conducting the study, writing the manuscript and after publication. These categories are subsequently divided into steps which can be “checked off” of the stamp card. For example, one of the steps from the ‘conducting a study’ category includes writing and updating data collection protocols, and the ‘after publication’ category includes steps like archiving your publication package. To make this more stimulating and motivating we are also adding in a visual representation when choosing and ‘checking off’ steps.
Some steps are labeled as ‘must-do’ (e.g. publication packages), while others are labeled ‘nice-to-do’. The nice-to-do steps are those that are not required, but are in line with the vision of SYNC, like uploading a preprint or writing a blog on your research. Each step will be expounded upon with links to articles on the SYNC lab wiki and examples of these steps from other researchers within the SYNC lab to promote cohesion on Open Science output. The articles on the SYNC lab wiki will provide tips and detailed instruction for each step, as well as provide links to outside sources and information on their uses. It may be daunting to focus on these practices on a project wide scale, but with this concept we will give bite-sized information and motivate working on these items step-by-step and from an early stage.

To sum up, here at the SYNC lab we are already doing much in the way of Open Science practices and we are heavily investing in making this as easy as possible for everyone involved. I am personally very excited to be working on the stamp card and to see how it will support our researchers in the future!

Last week was the bi-annual conference of the Dutch Society of Brain and Cognition (NVP) in Egmond aan Zee. Usually this conference takes place in December, but due to Covid-19 it was moved to April, which had the advantage that we had (slightly) better weather for nice beach walks. However, what was extra special for me and many of my colleagues was that it was the first in-person conference in 2.5 years time! After getting used to all the hickups of online meetings and presentations, it was refreshing to finally be able to meet colleagues in the field in real life again. Based on my experiences in this conference, I will share my view on the added value of in-person conferences in this blog. I think for me this comes down to three main aspects, that are probably all three related to each other: it is easy to get inspired, it allows for spontaneity and it creates a sense of social connectedness. Together, this makes that you can get most out of the conference!

Inspiration

A conference is the perfect place to get a good overview of all the important recent findings and cool research that is being done in the field. The NVP conference has a focus on research on brain and cognition and indeed, there were very inspiring scientific symposia, keynotes and poster sessions on for example decision making, prejudice and social cognition (see here some of the posters from our lab). It was nice to see how well-visited all the sessions were and how enthusiastic everyone was to discuss science! I also noticed how much easier it was for me to stay concentrated for a longer period on talks, compared to when I follow it on-screen. Therefore, it felt like I was able to get a lot more out of the conference. What also helped in this, was that it is easier to talk to people about their research on a more casual level, because you could just walk up to them after their talks (or at their posters) and start a conversation. Even though this sounds so simple, I actually missed that in our online lives – once the meeting was over and the zoom link was closed, you often just turned to your own work again and rarely started another zoom to have a chat with the presenter. Thus, the in-person conference was also a great way to get inspired by more informal talks with colleagues on research. A third reason that helped fuel the inspiration, was the fact that we were in a new environment, which helps in sparking creativity and in generating new ideas. For example, during the NVP conference, we could alternate the scientific program with sunny beach walks and for me that brought a lot more inspiration than the usual walk around the block of my house!

Spontaneity

During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was common to prerecord your presentation for an online conference. I know I am not the only one who restarted my recording multiple times to get the perfect video, to the point where it actually became kind of a normal question to ask: “how many times did you start over?”. However, this also makes that there is less room for those small human mistakes that bring a bit more spontaneity into a talk and that keep the presenter more human. Giving a live talk sometimes requires on the spot fixing of situations, which is often accompanied by spontaneous jokes. For example, while the whole audience was listening in full concentration to a great speaker, suddenly Siri (on his Iphone) disturbed the presentation with its well-known comment ‘I don’t understand this sentence’. You can imagine the great timing and laughter of the audience. These jokes are better received offline, because people can immediately respond (instead of with a delay and muted smile) and all feel included on the joke. In general, I think it is just way more fun to watch human actions in real life than to watch it through a screen! Finally, not only the presentations become more spontaneous, but the interactions with others as well, for example when you walk out of the conference room and into the coffee break.

Social connectedness

These spontaneous interactions also ensure that you get to know your colleagues on an informal level as well, which leads to an increased feeling of social connectedness. For example, during the NVP conference, there was plenty of time to discuss who had the best skills on the bowling alley or to find out who was the outlier colleague on the dance floor. I also sensed this sort of connectedness during several interactive sessions of the NVP conference. For example, there was a Diversity & Inclusion session, where the audience was divided into small groups to discuss D&I issues they encountered and what could be important steps to take as scientific field. It was enlightening to not only discuss this with your own lab, but also hear opinions and experiences from colleagues from other universities. I think this connectedness is especially important because we need to connect different fields and scientists to answer the larger inter/transdisciplinary questions in society.

The future for conferences?

Even though I am very excited that in-person conferences are being planned again, I think we should not underestimate the advantages of online conferencesl: it is more flexible, it is easier to rewatch recorded talks in your own time and it is less expensive because you do not have to pay for travel and accommodation. But a possibly even more important argument for online conferences is sustainability: I think we all have a shared responsibility to reduce CO2 emissions and think about our planet. Luckily, the NVP conference was very easily accessible by train, but it is of course less sustainable to travel across the globe multiple times a year, just to attend a conference for a couple of days. However, I believe attending a conference in person has added value, especially for young researchers that are still building their networks. So what should the future of conferences look like? We discussed this dilemma in our lab as well. One solution that we came up with is to not cancel in-person conferences all together, but to choose one conference you’d like to go to and think about what the extra added value is compared to watching online, especially when it takes place at the other side of the world. For example, see if it is possible to combine the conference with a lab visit in a lab you are interested in, or plan to meet with researchers you’d specifically like to work with. In this way, it is possible to really get most out of the in-person conference!

By Mara van der Meulen

One of my favorite things about being a scientist is sharing the results of my work. After spending countless hours in data collection, data organization, data processing, and data analysis, I find it very rewarding to hear what others think of my findings and how these findings might be of use for them. Sharing findings with other scientists is relatively easy: we meet each other at meetings or conferences and share our findings via poster presentations or oral presentations. It seems a slightly different story to share our findings with a wider audience. There are certain practicalities that have to be taken into account: what prior knowledge does the audience have, and how detailed should the story be? What language to use in order to best convey a message? (see this earlier SYNC blog for some inspiring examples of how to tackle these issues). Due to these differences, communicating scientific findings in science and society might seem like two very distinct activities that require particular skills. However, I would like to argue that the two have more in common than you initially think. Let me explain by sharing my thoughts on why communicating science is so important.

Motives for science communication
Throughout my PhD and postdoc I have gained experience in communicating my findings both to scientists and non-scientists. After numerous poster presentations, conference talks, popular scientific blogs, interviews, and even an appearance in a popular Dutch children’s TV series I realized that I have three main motives for science communication: giving back to others, getting others excited about science, and gaining new perspectives on my own work. I think that these three factors play a large role in for communicating scientific findings in science as well as in society.

Giving back to others
First, a little background: I’m a researcher with a strong interest in social competence, and especially in prosocial behavior (i.e. behavior that we engage in to help another person). One important aspect of prosocial behavior is sharing possessions, such as money or goods, in order to support another person. As humans we have a tendency for reciprocal prosocial behavior: when you give me something nice, I am likely to give something back to you as well. The same goes for sharing scientific findings. When I started my research on prosocial behavior I based my hypotheses on previous findings, conducted by many researchers before me. Because they published and shared their work I was able to formulate a theoretical framework for my own research. In turn, I now hope to contribute a bit to the research cycle by sharing my findings with other researchers in the hope of inspiring them. Sharing science is also informed by society, as many of our scientific questions are fueled by societal issues. Society provides many questions (such as why some children are more prosocial than others), and when I’m sharing my findings with a wider audience I hope my findings will provide information and inspiration for policymakers, teachers, and parents. In turn they might utilize that information to figure out how to best support children’s social development. So, by being prosocial with my own findings, I can contribute to both scientific and societal groups in order to eventually foster prosocial behavior in others!

Science is exciting!
My second goal in communicating scientific findings is to get others excited about science. This actually not only pertains to scientific findings, but more to the scientific process as a whole. For fellow scientists this is not so complicated: especially those in the same field are likely to get as excited by novel paradigms, brand-new neuroimaging methods and state-of-the art statistical analyses as I am. But also sharing the details of data collection (such as research protocols on the L-CID website) or the tips and tricks on how to motivate your participants can increase researcher’s enthusiasm: by not having to reinvent the wheel in the data collection procedure, more time remains for tasks such as data analysis or writing papers. Sharing these fine details of doing science is probably not as appealing for a societal audience, but it can serve another important purpose. By being transparent about how our scientific studies are conducted, and showing how much work has been done to arrive at a certain conclusion, we might be able to increase or maintain people’s trust in scientific results. For example, explaining what we can actually do (and not do) with an MRI scanner, and what exciting discoveries the field of developmental neuroscience has made in the last decade about the developing brain, might help to make a wider audience understand the added value of neuroscience in researching human behavior. Of course an additional bonus of sharing science with a younger audience, such as children and adolescents, is being able to show that not all scientists are lab-coat wearing hermits who never leave their dusty attic 🙂

Gaining new perspectives
Finally, as I wrote earlier, prosocial behavior is often reciprocal: when you give me something nice, I am likely to give something back to you as well. This means you can also benefit from sharing with someone else. This is exactly what I experienced in communicating my findings: apart from contributing to others’ knowledge and enthusiasm, I also get something out of sharing my findings for myself. Having both scientists and non-scientists ask questions or provide feedback after I present my findings really helps me to view my findings in a new light. Sometimes they point out aspects that I didn’t really consider before (such as how having a twin brother might influence a child’s tendency to be prosocial). At other times their questions help me realize that there are some details in my results that I don’t fully comprehend yet, and that require a bit more thinking or an alternative analysis. Either way, sharing my findings with others clearly has benefits for me too.

To sum up, even though communicating scientific findings in science and in society might sound like very different things, my motives for engaging in both highlight some commonalities: they both allow us as researchers to share our findings and gain new insights for ourselves. By sharing our findings with a larger group (be it other scientists or a wider audience) we can contribute to the eternal research cycle that continuously brings us one step closer to answering important scientific and societal questions.

PS. If you are attending the NVP Conference in the last week of April, come say hi at our posters or talks! We’ll probably learn a thing or two from each other 🙂

Image credits: Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

After graduation from an interdisciplinary master’s degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences I was certain about one thing: I want to connect science to society and act as the bridge between them. During my time as research intern or research assistant I often grew frustrated over the lack of public recognition for our work. There were all these amazing scientific outcomes that could benefit society, so why do so little people outside academia know about them? This is when the Erasmus SYNC lab came into view. SYNC stands for Society, Youth and Neuroscience Connected. Well, you can imagine that this name appealed to me immediately.

As of August, I am a Junior Researcher at the YoungXperts core team within the SYNC lab. Together, we develop novel ways to connect with youth and societal partners. My tasks consist of hosting youth panels, networking as well as fostering collaborations with societal partners and science communication. Hence, I now had a chance to practice ‘being the bridge.’ While I am still growing into my role, I would like to share the five core insights that I had in this position so far:

  1. Shifting message styles 

Whatsapp voice messages with youth workers, vlogs for adolescents who hate long documents, texting with teachers, emails with policy makers, Slack with my fellow colleagues. This is just a handful of communication tools that I use to foster citizen science initiatives. Whereas in research we naturally tend to write detailed pieces of information, I quickly realized I would need to learn to shift my styles according to the audience. Because, the key to successful communication with our societal partners is to dive into their world. One moment that this became particularly evident for me was during the Healthy Start Kick-off conference (amazing initiative, check it out here). During this conference, I brainstormed with young scientists and youth workers about solutions for durable knowledge transfer between science and practice. At one point one youth worker exclaimed; ‘You scientists talk in such an abstract way!’ And she was right: without being consciously aware, we talked in terms of systems and concepts. Youth workers on the other hand need to be clear and decisive so directness and practical wordings are their tools of choice. So now, whenever I meet with youth workers, youth or other practically oriented people, I try to make my message tangible. Her advice was to start on a small and practical scale and let it evolve from there. How refreshing!

Quote: “You scientists talk in such an abstract way!’ – Youth worker

  1. Fostering collaborations

Over the past few months, I have come across A LOT of admirable initiatives that aim to provide optimal conditions for youth. All initiatives are driven by very passionate people, so how do we choose with whom we want to collaborate? Compared to research collaboratives, where each party’s interest is relatively similar – share knowledge, share data, obtain money for research – the interests of societal partners can vary significantly and are oftentimes influenced by political motives. I have explored options for collaboration based on effect measurements, sharing knowledge, financial constructions, empowering adolescents, and more. This leads to questions such as ‘how do we remain scientifically independent? How do we go about money? How much time are we willing to invest?’ I have found a few factors that catalyze win-win collaborations.

  • Collaborations that grow based on passion and time-investment, rather than financial dependency.
  • Collaborations where task division is very obvious (for example, we provide scientific knowledge, and you provide design)
  • Spontaneous collaborations based on societal momentum.

To give an example of the latter, last December we were approached by the board of ACLO Student sports Groningen and student initiative ‘Lieve Mark.’ It was a couple days before the press conference would inform Dutch citizens about the evening lockdown, which meant closing sports facilities. The ACLO sports club saw the physical and mental health of its students dwindle and wanted to let their voices be heard. So, could we collaborate? To gain momentum, we wanted to launch the questionnaire right after the press conference. Within a couple days, we co-created a questionnaire, obtained 800 responses in two days using the snowballing method, wrote a report and infographic and met with OMT-member Károly Illy to present our findings. Short track run, but great collaboration and huge impact!

  1. Balancing scientific nuance and societal clearness

“Students who report feeling bored during the lockdown use more alcohol and drugs”. This is not true. Actually, it should be: “From the students who report feeling bored during the lockdown, 30% reports to use more alcohol than usual and 20% reports to use more drugs than usual.” As part of my job, I translate scientific outcomes into short facts that are posted on our YoungXperts Instagram and website. The first sentence fits on an Instagram post, the second sentence does not. The scope of the two sentences is entirely different. Still, this is a relatively easy scientific fact. How should we communicate scientific outcomes regarding brain activity which reflect a chance and a non-causal relationship? Or should we mostly focus on our behavioral outcomes? I now realize that navigating this fine line between scientific nuance and societal clearness is like a puzzle. With creating impact and interest as the goals, we cannot resort to lengthy paragraphs to ensure perfect academic work. Hence, at SYNC we invest a good chunk of time discussing best practice approaches and are keen to grow in science communication. One initiative for which this worked out pretty great is ‘We Spark The World.’ Don’t hesitate to check out the science communication video starring me while explaining the neuroscience of gratitude!

  1. Bridging as the in-between

It is inherent to being a bridge that one doesn’t really belong to either side. Funnily enough, I never really thought of this before I experienced bridging science and society. At the moment I’m neither an academic researcher and nor fully embedded in a societal organization. My tasks simply lie in between. In this, I believe that my role is crucial and will become increasingly important in the future. The tasks involved in connecting science to society, such as organizing and hosting youth panels, visiting societal partners, going to networking events, making sure everyone is on the same page, are time-consuming. If academia wants to build stronger connections with society, like the SYNC lab does, the time spent on societal activities means less time spent on research. For PhD’ers and post-docs with a publication pressure this means a lot of work, maybe even too much work. Luckily, academia is beginning to see why societal impact is so important and wants to embed this within the new ‘Erkennen en Waarderen’, but change won’t come overnight. Instead, I think and hope it will become more common in the future to hire people in academic settings that solely focus on connection with society. My function in the SYNC lab is just the start of it and since it’s so new I’ve noticed we are still figuring out what should be my responsibilities. It’s like my colleague recently said about the rise of big data: “Ten years ago data manager wasn’t a function because all researchers managed themselves. Now, they are everywhere!” And don’t we all need them?

  1. Once a believer, always a believer

Within the YoungXperts team we believe exactly what the name implies, namely that young people are the experts when it comes to their experiences within society. Therefore, whenever we want to solve a societal problem that involves adolescents, adolescents should be part of the process. During my time at the SYNC lab, I have joined many ambitious meetings that aim to benefit and help youngsters. One thing I learned is that we inevitably, even with the best of intentions, make assumptions about adolescent’s opinions or situations. There is one simple solution: check your assumptions and let adolescents be part of the process. From experience I can say: once you’ve grasped the importance of youth participation (this doesn’t take long), you can’t go back to the way things were before. Even research shows that interventions for youth are most effective when youth was part of creating the program. Therefore, I subscribe myself to the motto: ‘Nothing about us, without us.’

To those who have more experience in bridging science and society: I would love to learn more about your experiences and am excited to hear whether you resonate with what I have noticed so far. Feel free to get in touch!

As a developmental neuroscientist, I strongly believe that Development Matters! Most children develop well and find their way into society without many problems, but not all children manage to do so. What is the role of brain maturation in child development? How are children’s chances for thriving determined by their parents? Put even broader, how can we better guide children’s development in such a way that all children grow up to be contributing members of our society?

 Individual development and societal challenges

Our society is more complex than ever: the next generation of adolescents has to navigate the consequences of multiple crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and even war within Europe. To understand the impact of these factors on developing youth, we need to invest in fundamental longitudinal studies that target the complex and dynamic processes of social development.

Within the Leiden Consortium on Individual Development (L-CID), we investigate to what extent complex social development is related to a combination of the child’s disposition and the environment in which one is raised. We aim to understand the role of brain development herein, how children’s chances for thriving are influenced by their parents, and how we can better foster children’s development.

 L-CID presents: Development Matters Conference!

We are excited to host a conference tomorrow on Tuesday 22 March. On this one-day interactive conference we will highlight our results, look back at the lessons learned from collecting longitudinal data in a developmental twin sample, and share our vision on working towards open science and creating societal impact. Moreover, I will chair a round table discussion (in Dutch) on the importance of fundamental developmental neuroscience for societal challenges with Károly Illy (pediatrician and member of the Outbreak Management Team) and Prof. Dr. Arne Popma (head of the department for child and adolescent psychiatry at Amsterdam UMC and chairman of the Dutch Psychiatric Association: NVvP). The conference takes place in Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden and there are still some limited places available (contact me directly).

The round table discussion, key note presentations and science flash talks will also be available on live-stream. I most certainly hope you will join us in discussing and advocating why Development Matters!

Academic Development

The L-CID project has been tremendously important for my personal (academic) development. I have been involved in the project from the start in 2013: as a student-intern (2013), research assistant (2014), PhD candidate (2015-2020), Postdoctoral Researcher (2020-2022) and starting June 2022 as a junior Principal Investigator. As the data grew, I grew too: running the project provided me with the best thinkable basis for an academic career. The broad project gave me the opportunity to use an interdisciplinary approach, by integrating different research fields using various methods.

But L-CID brought me so much more than solely scientific knowledge. A project of this size requires excellent team-science: over 150 student-interns and research assistants have been involved over the last decade. Moreover, with the digital transitions and advancements, scientists around the world are taking endeavors to improve their research through data sharing and collaboration. Within L-CID I also invested a lot of time and effort in Open Science practices, for which I received the Convergence Health and Technology Open Research Award.  I consider societal outreach as an important part of Open Science and over the years I got the opportunity to do so many fun outreach activities: from public lectures to featuring on a national TV show – I experienced it all through L-CID. All in all, L-CID helped me in establishing my vision for future science: Interdisciplinary, Open, Team-Based Science with Societal impact! 

Leiden- Consortium Individual Development: A unique design

Complex and dynamic processes such as social competence and behavioral control can be best understood using a multi-informant (i.e., individual, sibling and parent reports), multi-method (observation, self-report and experimental), multi-index (behavior, hormones, brain measures) approach. To better understand the longitudinal developmental pathways of social competence and behavioral control, L-CID created a unique study design along seven important factors:

  1. The L-CID study includes two different cohorts: the early childhood cohort (ECC), aged 3-5 at wave 1, and the middle childhood cohort (MCC), aged 7-9 at wave 1.
  2. The last two waves of the ECC overlap with the first two waves of the MCC, resulting in a cohort-sequential design including children aged 3-14 years old.
  3. Each cohort has six annual measures, and home and lab visits are alternated across the 6 waves.
  4. The home visits include behavioral measures and lab visits additionally include neuroimaging measures (EEG or MRI).
  5. All participants included in the study are same-sex twins and approximately 54% of the sample is monozygotic.
  6. To experimentally examine social enrichment, we included a parental intervention.
  7. Data collection was still going on at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In both cohorts, we included measures specific to the pandemic in an additional COVID-19 wave (May 2020).

 

The longitudinal design allows us to answer developmental questions and the combination of brain and behavioral measures will help us to study sensitive windows in brain development. Because the two cohorts overlap, we are able to test for direct replication within our studies. Moreover, the randomized control intervention allows us to test for causality and with the twin data we can implement genetic modeling and test the relative impact of genetic vs environmental variability.

Longitudinal pathways in brain and behavior

Despite that we just finished the data collection in September 2021, we have already published numerous innovative scientific findings using the L-CID data.

My own research line focusses on social emotion regulation and associated brain development. Using the L-CID data, my PhD research showed that early neural indicators in childhood are crucially important for future development. That is, we showed that longitudinal changes in neural activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) were associated with longitudinal changes in aggression regulation following social rejection. These findings provide insights into how children experience social evaluation and how they control emotions following rejection.

Within the L-CID study we discovered much more about why development matters. For example, using behavioral genetic modeling, Lina revealed that most of the variation in academic self-evaluations was heritable, whereas most of the variation in social self-evaluations was explained by shared environmental factors, suggesting that environmental context plays a large impact on the behavioral and neural correlates of social self-concept. Furthermore, using a bi-dimensional taxonomy of prosociality and reactive aggression, Simone was able to predict internalizing and externalizing problems over time. Children who showed prosocial behavior and reactive aggression developed less externalizing behaviors over a one-year period than children who did not show both types of behavior. To share our knowledge on why development matters, Karlijn developed a movie for the Dutch Festival of Science in which we discover five brain secrets.

Using L-CID’s unique design and data, we can move beyond descriptive analyses towards predictive analyses and unravel important factors that determine which children will thrive during adolescence and which will benefit from extra support. Ultimately, this can help us guide children’s development, so that all children grow up to be contributing members of our society.

 For more information on L-CID, visit our brand-new website www.developmentmatters.nl