Blog by Yara Toenders and Karlijn Hermans

On 9th November 2022 the research day of the All Schools Collect/Come Together (Alle Scholen Verzamelen) 2022 took place with the project ‘We find!’. Around 3000 children from 76 primary schools across the Netherlands participated in the project organized by the Science Communication Hubs in collaboration with Karlijn Hermans and Yara Toenders. They each visited a primary school in Leiden and Rotterdam that participated in the project: Primary school Anne Frank in Leiden and Quadratum in Rotterdam.

What is All Schools Collect Together?

All schools collect together is a citizen science project, where pupils in class 6, 7 and 8 are citizen researcher for the day. In the project ‘We find!’ they researched whether their voice is similar to the voice of adults who influence their social environment when it comes to what the pupils find important in their social environment. Pupils chose the social environment they wanted to focus on: home, the school or the neighbourhood. Using the data collected by the pupils, the researchers will study whether there are differences between these environments in terms of whether children’s voiced are being heard, and if there is a relation with social-economic status and urbanicity. The research topic ‘social behavior and environment’ is extremely timely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic and lockdowns, adults restricted the social environment of children, therefore the researchers aimed to teach the pupils about their social environment and to listen to their voices. The age of these children, late childhood and early adolescence, is of importance when it comes to the development of social skills and growing up to be resilient adults.

The research day

In a preparatory class, the pupils created a ranking in the class with 5 topics they need most to be social at home, school or in the neighbourhood. To study whether adults find similar topics of importance as they do, the pupils interviewed an adult on the research day. They worked in groups and they each had their own role based on what their strengths are or what they would like to learn. To teach the pupils about team science (where researchers collaborate and complement each other’s expertise to together reach a goal), pupils chose a role within the groups such as interviewers, analysts, and designers. They took the lead in the respective parts of the research.

Instructions to interview the key figures

The interview

The pupils invited a key figure to take part in their interview. Depending on the environment that the pupils focused on, the key figures were for example teachers, parents or the mayor. During this interview, the key figures were asked to rank the 5 topics that were listed by the pupils according to to what degree they act upon or are concerned with the topics. At the school in Leiden the school environment was picked and several teachers and the school directors were interviewed, both physically as well as virtually. One of the groups interviewed a teacher on the research day, but also interviewed the mayor of Leiden later in the week. The pupils were quite nervous before the interview started. For most of them it was a first, and they were happy to have a script. After a while the pupils got more comfortable and also asked questions that weren’t scripted such as ‘why do you find this research important?’. For some groups the interview turned into a conversation starter to discuss social security and bullying: do the teacher notice when a pupil is being bullied?

A group of pupils from OBS Anne Frank in Leiden interviewing the director of the school via Teams

In Rotterdam the pupils were very enthusiastic that they were going to interview the school director. Especially offering him a drink was a highlight. When they entered the director’s office the tension increased, who was going to take the lead in the interview? But after the first question was asked, the rest of the interview went smoothly and the school director was really enthusiastic when talking about the social environment of the children. Afterwards, one of the pupils said that the interview was ‘fun but the responses were a bit complicated’. Does that mean that the key figure looks differently at the social environment than the pupils do?

A group of pupils from the Quadratum school in Rotterdam interviewing the physical education teacher

The data processing phase

Under the supervision of the data analysts from each group, the pupils processed the results. They calculated the difference score between the class top 5 and the top 5 of the key figure based on the result poster. A higher difference score meant that the priorities from which was found important in the social environment from the children’s perspective was different from what was found from the key figure’s perspective. In addition, the pupils indicated with colours for each of the top 5 elements whether something is already available in their environment or not (yet). On the back of the result poster, the pupils worked on the interpretation of the results: what was the reason that the key figure had a different top 5? Or how come that both the top 5 were similar?

The result poster of a group at the Quadratum school in Rotterdam (above).They ranked ‘time to be social (for example breaks) fifth, whereas the key figure ranked it second! The result poster of a group of pupils at OBS Anne Frank in Leiden (below). Here, there was a lot of agreement. 

This is something that seemed to be not so easy, because how would you know what the results could mean? It helped to have a couple of options to choose from, as it was often clear which interpretation was not applicable. In some groups, the results in Rotterdam showed a lot of resemblances between the class top 5 and the top 5 of the key figures, which was explained as ‘indeed, the teacher listens to us very well’. In other groups, there appeared to be more differences, as sometimes the aspect that children picked as their number 1 was put in 5th place by the key figure. In Leiden, all groups presented their interpretation and what stood out to them most. It seemed to boil down to the conclusion that key figures think more broadly than children, as they prioritized the elements taking into account a variety of factors and dependencies, while children often look at the elements they needed separately from each other. Of course, the aggregated results will show whether this is a representative finding, but at least it shows that, at the school in Leiden, children and key figures became more understanding of each other and each other’s perceptions. We are very excited to see if this will also show based on the results!

The visualization phase

In the final phase, the designers worked on creative ways to visualize and communicate the results. At the schools in Leiden and Rotterdam, there was a lot of variety and enthusiasm: rap, digital posters, histograms, comics, movies and drawings were made to communicate the conclusions of the research project.

Example of the presentation; a comic where two people talk what they would like their environment to look like.

The message that would be central on the poster was clear within 5 minutes – ‘Adults find other things important in the social environment’, however, the blue color on the background caused more discussion. From the rap it appeared that the pupils thought it was most important to adapt to others, but this had to be put into practice still in choosing the background color.. At least the first steps in learning what is important in the social environment have been taken!

The proud pupils of OBS Anne Frank in Leiden with their teacher and researcher Karlijn!

The enthusiastic pupils of the Quadratum school in Rotterdam with their teacher and researcher Yara!

More information about the successful research day, including the perspective/interviews with Karlijn and Yara, can be found on the website of the University of Leiden and the Erasmus University Rotterdam. All the creative presentations will be collected on the website Until the 1st of December, the pupils can download their visualization. The class with the most beautiful/best/most creative/most convincing visualization will win a price! This class may visit the Erasmus University for a tour and see for themselves what is being done with the data they collected. So, be quick to upload your visualization!

When all data has been sent to the researchers, they will combine it all. In 3 months, in February, the first results based on the collected data from all the pupils from the entire country will be shared with the participating schools. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without all the hard work of the citizen scientists on the primary schools. Thank you all very much for participating in the project and doing the research! Also a big thank you to all the teachers and schools that participated in the project Alle Scholen Verzamelen!

By: Mara van der Meulen

Have you ever tried to get an 8-year-old child to sit completely still for at least 50 minutes? And have you ever tried to do so when that child was a bit nervous? This was exactly the situation that our young participants were in when they visited the MRI scanner for a scan session in the L-CID study. During lab visits, we collected functional MRI data (up to six runs), structural MRI data, DTI data (two scans) and resting state fMRI data, resulting in a scan protocol that lasted at least 50 minutes per child. In this blog I’ll share some of our tips & tricks on how we approached this.

Make participant well-being a priority

Even before our first scan we realized that participant well-being was the top priority in the L-CID study: even though we wanted to collect large amounts of data, we wanted to make sure that all participants enjoyed being a part of the L-CID study. We therefore designed our lab visit in a way that allowed for plenty of time for chit-chat between tasks, for toilet or other breaks, and to answer questions if necessary. Especially for MRI data we knew that anxious or nervous participants would be less likely to lie still (and therefore have lower quality MRI data), which was an extra motivation to prioritize participant happiness throughout the study.

Preparation is key

For us, this started with having our participants informed about what was going to happen, even before they arrived at the MRI scanner. Therefore, we already gave a brief explanation of the MRI procedure when we first contacted the parents. To show their children what the lab visit would look like, we also sent the parents some information via e-mail, such as pictures of the scanner environment and the different steps in the scan procedure.

This approach seemed to pay off: when the children arrived for the lab visit they always knew that an MRI scan was part of the visit, and they usually knew some aspects of the procedure as well (having to keep still, playing a game). We tried to make all participants feel welcome and at ease by chatting a bit about their plans for the day, their pets, or other small-talk.

Practice makes perfect      

We started the lab visit with some general explanation and a practice session. We asked the participants and their parents to indicate how excited and how nervous they felt about the MRI procedure. Next, we invited participants to do a run-through of the procedure in a mock scanner. If they felt very nervous about that, we first demonstrated the procedure on a large stuffed animal while asking the children to assist us by handing us earplugs and other materials. Children who felt more at ease could practice lying on the scanner bed, wearing the ear plugs, and being shoved in the MRI scanner. We made our instruction as engaging as possible by asking participants what they were thinking (“Why do you think you need a mirror when you are in the scanner?”).

Check-in before the scan session

After the practice session the children were shown the real MRI scanner. After a change of clothes (we provided child-sized, metal free pajamas instead of hospital scrubs, for children who didn’t bring suitable clothes) and a toilet break, we again checked how children and parents reported on the child’s excitement and nerves towards the scanner. If children were still very nervous, we always addressed their anxiety and checked numerous times whether they felt okay about starting with the MRI scan. If they were too anxious, we explained that the MRI session was not mandatory and that they could also complete the tasks on the laptop. For those participants who were very nervous yet still willing to give the whole MRI session a try, we sometimes asked one of our dedicated research assistants to sit with them in the MRI room, so the child knew someone was with them.

Keep your participants’ preferences in mind

During the scan session we always kept a close eye on our participants, to ensure their wellbeing. Whereas adolescent or adult participants can easily lie still for 20 minutes or more, we found that our young participants liked to chat with us every couple of minutes. Therefore we organized our scanning protocol in such a way that every scan lasted a maximum of 6 minutes, followed by a short break that allowed us to check in with our participants again. This set-up gave them time to ask their questions, and it gave us the possibility to remind them to keep very still during the scan. To make the experience as enjoyable as possible, we also selected some age-appropriate movies (such as Frozen, Lilo & Stitch or Cars) for our participants to watch during the structural scans.

Adapt your procedure when necessary

Despite our constant instructions and encouragements to keep as still as possible, we quickly noted that this was easier for some participants than it was for others. After each completed scan we quickly checked for gross motion artifacts. In case of extreme motion during the structural T1 scans we often tried to redo the scan, hoping to get a more usable scan. However, when we noted that a participant was already anxious or stressed, or simply had a very hard time keeping still, we usually decided against redoing the scan: since we didn’t think a better scan could be made, we didn’t want to subject the participants to unnecessary time in the scanner.

If you would like to know how our approach affected the quantity and quality of the scans we collected, read our publication on scan quality and quantity. More details on our lab visits, including exact instructions, can also be found in our open protocols on data collection. If you have questions about anything we did, feel free to reach out!


Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

9am lecture. 11am workshop. 2pm working at my side job. 6pm having dinner at a friend’s house. 9pm drinks at the student association. And between all those activities, I need to finish a paper and prepare a presentation for tomorrow. This is what my average Tuesday as a student looked like and is an example of the hectic life students nowadays have. For students, the pressure to keep all the balls in the air is high.

My student life is now behind me. Since four weeks, I am the new Junior Researcher of SYNClab. I am primarily involved in citizen science initiatives, like SYNClab’s youth platform YoungXperts. In this blog, I’ll dive into the theme of performance pressure. I’ll discuss the facts, share my own experience with performance pressure and explain how YoungXperts wants to give adolescents and young adults a voice in this mental crisis.

What we know about performance pressure among students

Performance pressure is a hot topic. You read about it in scientific articles, hear about it in the news and maybe experience it yourself as well.  What do we know so far? The most important facts about performance pressure among students are listed below:

  • More than 1 out of 3 young adults experiences pressure to perform (HBSC, 2021).
  • Among students, women experience more performance pressure than men (CBS, 2021).
  • The older students get, the more performance pressure they experience. 27% of the 12–13-year-olds experience performance pressure, while among 18-21-year-olds, the percentage is 60% (CBS, 2021).
  • The cause for pressure to perform differs between adolescents and young adults. For adolescents, pressure comes primarily from parents (35%) and teachers (30%). For young adults, the pressure to perform is felt mainly from society (more than 40%) (CBS, 2021).

My experience with performance pressure

The facts don’t lie. As a student, I also experienced pressure to perform. Students from the current generation live in a time of insecurities. I am a student from the so-called “pechgeneratie” and fall under the student loan system. Life as a student is expensive, especially with the rising rental fees for student homes. Since I did not want my loan to be excessive, I started working 2 days a week, next to my studies. Furthermore, the student association also took up some time. A committee, some volunteering work, and sports; it filled my agenda. As a student you want to have some money to spent, build on your CV, get good grades, be social and be healthy. And we don’t want to miss a thing (FOMO).

Some tips from a fresh graduate student

Although I believe that a lot of societal developments (student loan system, social media, rising house rental/gas fees) play a role in the pressure students experience, there are some things you can do to reduce the external pressure. Because this time of your life is too much fun to live under the burden of performance pressure.

Here are my personal tips that might help you:

  • Make a planning for your week. Students are often busy with study, work, sports, and social life. With a lot of different activities in your head, you can lose the overview. Therefore, it is important to plan your week beforehand. This will give some structure and creates headspace.
  • Make lists and prioritize. This helps you to do one thing at a time. What should be done today and what can be done tomorrow?
  • Turn of your notifications. Your socials or work mail can be a large distraction. A notification is often another “to do” and can make you feel stressed.
  • Ask for help. Talk with your student advisor about the problems you face or seek professional help for planning.
  • Discuss your feelings of pressure openly with friends. They can often relate to it and maybe help you out.
  • Be kind to yourself. Block some moments in your agenda for free time, so you can recharge your battery.

Remember that experiencing pressure to perform is not something that you need to solve by yourself, especially since many adolescents and young adults feel pressure from their parents, teachers, and society. Perhaps we should also look for a solution to this problem in society.

YoungXperts as a platform to make performance pressure discussable.

YoungXperts started during the COVID pandemic. The platform aims to make science of value to adolescents and young adults, so that they feel heard and can participate in decision-making that affects their future (e.g., national and regional policymaking). Thanks to the funding of NWA (Nationale Wetenschapsagenda), our team of researchers is able to research three big crises young adults deal with today, including the pressure to perform. Until the Christmas break, YoungXperts will organize Living Labs at schools, universities, and youth organizations to co-create understanding of and generate tangible solutions for performance pressure among students.

Make your voice heard in our Youth Panel sessions!

Do you find it hard to keep all the balls in the air as a student? Do you want to work out tangible solutions for performance pressure with us? Or are you a teacher/youth worker who wants us to organize a Youth Panel session at your school or organization? Send me an e-mail ( or give me a call (06-36030220).

At a relatively young age, my parents started noticing that my sport coordination was quite alright. Energy levels were through the roof and a huge love for ball sports got me (and my parents) inspired to play tennis and field hockey in the Netherlands. What started as fun introductions to these sports ended with mastering personal peaks in sport performances later in life, including playing in the youth national championships as a tennis player and winning the European championships with the Dutch youth national teams as a field hockey player. Of course, these sport performances were not achieved without the large amount of practice, overcoming many challenges, lessons that were learned, frustrations, and prioritizing decisions while getting older. Now, looking back on my sports career and current role as a developmental neuroscientist, I see many skills and challenges that overlap between playing sports at a professional level and working as a PhD student in an academic world. In that sense, it is perhaps not that surprising that I pursued an career in academia as well at some point? With this blog I want to share my experiences and lessons learned of my background in sports, which helped me entering the academic world, to possibly inspire people to pursue a dual career as well. But first, I will explain what it takes to work on a dual career.

Dual career pathways

To pursue two career pathways, such as a sport and academic one, it takes a lot of effort and time. I expected both to lead to high levels of success – well, that is why I work so hard – where both pursuits can also lead to a possible life-long career. However, research showed that it is impossible to devote 100% of your time in both pursuits. Therefore, to find the right strategy to balance an optimal dual career, I made constantly shifts between prioritizing sports and academics at the same time. As such, the prioritized role in a specific situation needs a little more effort and time while maintaining the other role. Also, a planning of the sport season was combined with a schedule of a scientist. What would you do if you are expected to play an important sport match while you are at the same time expected to present your most recent findings at an international conference? Yes, this is a tricky one and required shifting and frustration toleration skills. In this case, I tried to keep things in perspective and planned such big events as early as possible so I was able to play the match while present the findings at another fantastic international conference at a different time. Other competencies to make a dual career work are:

  • Time management where I decided what had the highest priority using for example the taxonomy scales of: (1) important and urgent, (2) important but not urgent, (3) not important but urgent, and (4) not important and not urgent.
  • A growth instead of a fixed mindset where I expanded my resources by learning from essential events and inspiring people. An advice is to consult on dual career challenges and explain to the people that you work with what your expectations are in both careers.
  • Stress, which I used for the good to perform on a high level during important career events such as a symposium talk or a final against Germany. Unless excessive stress comes through. In my case, I was collecting important MRI data for our longitudinal L-CID study every two weeks on Saturdays while playing two important field hockey games on Sundays. While both gave me a lot of positive energy in the beginning, it also brought me some unnecessary stress at times to plan everything in a tight schedule during the weekends. I talked with my coach about this and we changed my schedule to one match on Sundays for the time being. Lesson learned was to not keep the stress inside and communicate about it.


Benefits of dual career and overlapping skills

Prior work showed that one of the greatest benefits of a dual career in sports and academia is that one can recover from the other activity of that day by changing a mental activity to a physical one. Another positive note, is that sporters can show resilient behavior where an off day in sports does not necessarily mean an off day in academics and, therefore, they have the other career to fall back on sometimes. Unless one has an off day in both… double setback. During my sports career, I did not always enjoy setbacks. I needed time to develop this growth mindset where I learned to understand that setbacks have to be seen as growth opportunities instead of failures. Becoming an expert in sports requires a lot of training including making many mistakes. However, due to the competitive environment between sport talents, making mistakes can feel like causing you to miss a spot on the team. This may lead to a fixed mindset, where one is afraid to develop new skills. Later in my career, I developed a better growth mindset, and big surprise, I much more enjoyed performing on a high level than I did before. This is a skill that I also used many times during my academic career. During a PhD, one constantly learns new skills such as solving difficult statistical problems, writing publications, and presenting findings while being surrounded by a competitive environment of many other talented scientists. I try to address these challenges with a growth mindset, and thereby accept that I am a scientist where I allow myself to make room for mistakes to grow. Another important skill is teamwork. In both career environments, I experienced being an individual that operates in a team. I feel the urge to excel as an individual but feel the rush of working together in a team. Although an individual has to show competencies to belong in a team – whether that is making goals as a striker or R skills as a scientist – the qualities combined in a team provide achievements that are impossible to conquer on your own.

I have to admit with a bit of pain in my heart that I stopped my sports career last summer and now fully focus on my academic career – for now. I will submit my dissertation in approximately a year and that needs my full attention. The next challenge is on the way!


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:


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.


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.


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!