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!


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!


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

How informative videos can enhance information accessibility for and better representation of youth

Dr. Lysanne te Brinke, Kayla Green, Fabienne van Rossenberg

Informed consent is a core value of scientific research. Participants have the right to be informed about the purpose of the study, data collection and processing methods, data storage, and privacy. Participants also need to understand that participation in research is voluntary and that they have the right to withdraw their consent. Up until now, this information was offered via (digital) informed consent letters, which can be quite difficult to read for adolescents. As a result, not all adolescents are reached. Hence, the Erasmus SYNC Lab has decided to enhance information accessibility for youth via informative videos.

 Selection bias in research

Selection bias forms a major limitation in various scientific studies within the field of developmental psychology and neuroscience. For example, adolescents from middle to high socioeconomic backgrounds are frequently over-represented in research samples. The same applies to adolescents who attend (pre) academic educational programmes. There are several factors that may play a role in the lack of diversity in research samples. A potential factor is the outdated and unnecessarily complex way of requesting consent via information letters. These letters are often difficult to read, and due to their lengths, they can be quite intimidating for adolescents. For example, we have noticed that in recent survey studies a large group of adolescents who started with the online informed consent forms, dropped out halfway through. Although we do not know who these adolescents are nor do we exactly know what drives them to stop, it is still hypothesized these dropouts contribute to selection bias in our samples.

Diversity matters

In the Erasmus SYNC Lab, we value the importance of diverse and inclusive research. It is our common goal to have representative research samples of Dutch society. To achieve this, we have formulated goals. Specifically, we aim to 1) reach more adolescents with a bi- or multicultural background, 2) reach more adolescents who are following or have followed practical education, and 3) use other ways, such as vlogs and videos, to share information with adolescents. With our new informative videos, we contribute to these three goals. In academia, the use of information films is a novel way of communicating with adolescents. Additionally, these videos give us the opportunity to increase familiarity between the researchers and the potential participants.

Video development together with adolescents

The informative videos were created in close collaboration with adolescents. Through the YoungXperts platform, researchers organized two youth panel sessions with a diverse group of adolescents (aged 17 to 23) from Rotterdam. In the first meeting, the existing information letters, were discussed. Adolescents indicated that they don’t feel like reading the long texts, and that adolescents who experience a language barrier may become discouraged from the letters. They also mentioned that they are unable to estimate how much they could trust the researchers based on the written text. We then presented examples of existing informative videos to the youth panel and asked which format they prefer. They were very clear about this: “The films must contain a real person who explains the information supported by animations”.

Based on the youth panel’s input, the researchers started working on the script for the videos. The existing information letters, which were drawn up together with the Ethics Committee, have been leading in terms of content. Media company Public Cinema made a draft of the design. In a second youth panel session, we presented the content and design to them. Finally, after the plan was approved by the youth panel, the final videos were recorded.

Videos complement information letters

The Erasmus SYNC lab will use the videos as a supplement to the existing information letters, thus not as a replacement. This is important, because it gives adolescents freedom of choice in the way they want to be informed. Access to the information letters and videos remains possible after consent has been given. Although the videos were initially developed for adolescents over the age of 16, the videos can also be used to obtain parental consent for minors. In the future, we will also investigate the possibility of translating the videos, for example by adding Arabic and Turkish subtitles.

Recently, I went to a Mexican wedding and observed many young adults finally expressing their dance moves again on specifically loud and up-tempo music. Something we were not able to do in the last couple of months due to the strict covid-19 lockdown in the Netherlands. While my friends danced the night away, I noticed they all used different ways of expressing their dance moves. Almost every person moved more or less correctly to the expected beat. Solely three of them missed a beat once in a while. We all have that outlier friend. This suggests there are many individual differences in performing or expressing musical capabilities. It intrigued me a lot and therefore I started a discussion about this phenomenal mechanism of the multifaceted construct, musical capability, with the one standing close to me. The conversation started with music being incorporated in all of our lives – whenever we perform, dance or listen to music. While the hours passed by, we philosophized a bit more. How come music plays such an important part in all of our lives? Are we born with a set of “musical” genes or is practical experience the key to be a successful musical human being? And finally, why do we observe all these individual differences in experiencing and performing music?

 How come music plays such an important part in our lives?

Whether we listen to music during a late-night run, move to music to reload ourselves after a hard-working week, or perform music at the annual Christmas party – we all include music into our daily lives in many different contexts. People say music is a universal form of expression in a way of telling a story wherein language can be limited, because words cannot always express the feelings that we experience. Research shows that music making, including joint singing and dancing, inspires children to keep a shared goal of moving or vocalizing together in time. Thereby, children may follow the intrinsic human need to share their emotions, experiences and moves through music with others in their social contexts. As such, music can bind human beings as some sort of form of social superglue. Additionally, do you know someone that has exactly the same music taste and did you notice this created an even deeper connection between the two of you? Not just simultaneously music making but sharing similar music tastes can lead to better social interactions. All plausible reasons why we all love to perform, dance or listen to music – right? If we all love music that much, how come we observe variability in musical capability among individuals?

Musical genes and practical experience

Back to the Mexican wedding party… I noticed mainly one big difference between the rest of the dancing people and myself:  loose hips all over the place. With the particular salsa footsteps, men and women easily adapted their dance moves to different musical styles. It seems that there was a culture difference going on. I wondered, are these people born with these incredible dance moves? Twin studies revealed that a big part of rhythmic ability is influenced by genetic factors. Subsequently, this heritability effect also influences the willingness to practice. Thus, these findings suggest that even these additional factors, on top of musical talent, are driven by genetic factors. How does this work? Let me give you an example: the smooth dance moves I observed at the wedding were possibly substantially influenced by some rhythmic genes that the people were born with. However, the moves would not be flourished into excellent ones if they would never practice at birthday parties at an early age. Herewith, I want to mention another possible reason why individual differences can be observed in musical capability. Age of onset of musical training in sensitive windows of brain development during childhood – a period where a child is more susceptible to environmental effects – is also suggested to be a source of individual variability in musical skill development. Does this topic open the doors for neuroscientist to better understand brain plasticity? Yes.

Musical brain

We already know that music can support well-being by creating deeper social interactions, can improve the life quality by coloring our experiences with emotions, and can stimulate cognitive functions and learning (in math and language skills for example). But how come? Well, because a great part of our brain regions and brain networks are involved when we perform, dance or listen to music. Important networks related to well-being, learning and motor skills are the important affective and motor networks. When these are often activated by music this can help to keep the numerous brain pathways between these networks strong. How often we stimulate the brain networks depends on how often we practically experience music. Therefore, individual differences in brain development can possibly occur through variances in practical experiences over the years. Subsequently, this can lead to individual differences in musical capability. Maybe, this explains why we all have that nonrhythmic friend on the dancefloor?

To better understand the relation between individual differences in brain developmental patterns and musical capability – particularly during a sensitive window in childhood – I will investigate this topic that even fascinated me on the dancefloor of a Mexican wedding. With the unique twin-study design of Leiden Consortium on Individual Development (L-CID) we can explore this multidisciplinary question of music and brain developmental patterns in more detail. Stay tuned on what I will discover soon!


After 3 years as a project assistant at the L-CID twin study, I switched to the function of lab manager for the Society Youth Neuroscience Connected (SYNC) research lab. I figured that lab manager would be sort of the same (assisting the researchers with all sorts of things they need help with), therefore I said yes when I was asked to join the new lab in Rotterdam. Broadly speaking, there is an overlap in tasks between the two jobs, but there are substantial differences between ‘assisting a project’ or ‘managing a lab’. It’s relatively easy to know a lot about one project, instead of knowing all the answers in a lab with a lot of different projects. Projects that investigate for example prosocial behavior and self-esteem in young people, and how the brain is functioning in these developmental processes. Now, after 5 months of being the lab manager, and feeling less and less the newcomer, I can tell you 10 things I really like about being the SYNC lab manager.

  1. Superhero

Being a lab manager means you are the point of contact. I really like to be involved with everything and don’t want to miss a thing. As a lab manager, I don’t have to miss a thing! You also need to have special superpowers that can fix anything, help anyone at any time, make things happen, and sometimes get your own stuff done 🙂

  1. Big brother

Whether it’s a lab meeting, a coffee break, an online game, drinks, an excursion or workshop, there are no surprises for me, because I get to organize everything! I like being the one ‘who knows’ instead of being the surprised one!

  1. Post-its

Post-its are my favorite! While working from home during Covid-times, my desk was filled, cleared out and refilled with all kinds of post-its. Different sizes, different colors, completely full or with just one note. Being a lab manager is doing all sorts of small tasks (planning/rescheduling meetings, reading/sending emails, taking care of reservations, checking Qualtrics for new participants who need a survey link, sending reminders to colleagues..), but more important: you need to remember!

  1. Notebooks!

Although my to do list is growing during the day instead of shrinking (which might feel like something negative), for me that comes with one big advantage. Along with all sorts of post-its, I also really like notebooks! I am allowed to buy many to-do books, notebooks etc., because I really (really!) need them. Really.

  1. Slack

Of course, after some time off, my Slack-chat seems exploded and it takes a while before I read everything. Almost all communication within the SYNC lab goes through the chat-app Slack. You can have private or group conversations and for every project or subject there is a different channel. For your information: only for SYNC, I am joining 20 channels. The good thing is though, that reading everything is enough, most of the time. And of course, while reading, I have my to do list ready, to write down what is necessary to remember.

  1. Being thoughtful

One of the things we investigate in the SYNC lab is how people can develop their prosocial skills. I also like to practice my own prosocial skills. As the lab manager, it is my job to remember everyone’s birthday and it feels great to give someone else the feeling they are not forgotten. Totally fits me!

  1. Helping with different data collection/projects

The SYNC lab is a lab with a lot of different projects. All of them in different stages of research. While we are working with young people, we work a lot with surveys. This is also part of my job, a little bit of data collection by sending out surveys and collecting the answers. In that manner, I am engaged in research and a bit of data management, but without having the full package.

  1. Grateful job

You take over smaller or bigger tasks from scientist in the lab who are busy with their research. Not only the above-mentioned data collection, but also payment of participants or even smaller: hiring a nice place to write a paper. It is great to be of help and making people happy.

  1. Being connected to science

Even though I don’t want to be a scientist or even graduate and become a Doctor, this is the perfect way for me to keep up with the science in my discipline. Eventually, with all the acquired knowledge, we can really make a difference in the life of people. Great work is done and lots of new paths are followed. And I get to manage that! 🙂

  1. Sounds impressive

Let’s be real: who doesn’t want to say he/she is the lab manager of the SYNC lab!! If that isn’t good for self-esteem..

So now you know why, at the end of the day, I do love my job! I get to be the jack of all trades and I am the main supporter of the lab, doing all the behind-the-scenes work to help the lab run smoothly. And when a lab runs smoothly, that’s when great science happens!

I have always had a fascination for how children and adolescents learn and develop. However, for a long time I was uncertain how to tap into this fascination: would a job teaching children in primary or high school fit me best? Or should I aim to become a child psychologist, or something else entirely? I wasn’t sure, but I started by studying child psychology, only to find out after my bachelor’s that it wasn’t the best fit for me. I craved for some more in-depth knowledge, a challenge, abetter grasp on where children’s behavior comes from. That is how I ended up doing a PhD in developmental neuroscience.

Many adolescents are struggling, like I was, to find out who they are and where they want to go in life. So perhaps it is not so strange that they are sometimes described as being preoccupied with themselves or being egocentric. In the period between puberty and early adulthood, a lot is changing in the lives of young people: how do they navigate this? How do children grow up to get to know themselves, their own strengths, weaknesses and interests? During my PhD I studied how young people think about and evaluate themselves and how this changes between puberty and early adulthood.

To do this, I conducted several studies in which adolescents were asked to evaluate their traits: to what extent did they think that various positive and negative traits fit them (i.e. direct self-evaluations; ‘I am good-looking’)? They additionally reported how they thought their peers would judge them on these traits (i.e. reflected self-evaluations; ‘My peers think about me that I’m smart’). In addition to these MRI tasks, I used questionnaires, experimental tasks, and behavioral observations to be able to fully grasp self-concept during adolescence. In the first part of my PhD I focused on general self-concept development in typically developing adolescents, whereas in the second part of my PhD I focused on relationships of self with traits of autism and internalizing feelings.


What I learned about adolescents’ self-concept

These studies showed that adolescents are temporarily less positive about themselves in mid-adolescence, especially regarding their school-related traits (such as being smart or being motivated). Together with increasing activation in a brain region which processes self-relevance or significance of stimuli into late adolescence, this may suggest that self-concept is temporarily more vulnerable at this stage. This period of self-doubt may be adaptive and help adolescents to learn more about their traits, skills and interests, which can aid them to shape the goal for their future.

What we have also learned from these studies is that thinking about yourself, and thinking about how others would judge you, are very much alike both in behavioral ratings as in underlying brain activation. This indicates that self-concept is a social construct that develops in interaction with others.

After having learned this, I wondered what self-concept development would look like in adolescents who usually have more trouble with social interactions, such as adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Therefore, in the second part of my PhD, I studied how positive adolescents with ASD are about themselves, and how this is related to feelings of depression and anxiety. It appears that adolescents with autism, or with more autistic traits, are more vulnerable to have lower self-esteem, and to evaluate their social traits and physical appearance less positively compared to adolescents without autism. Additionally, low self-esteem in adolescents with autism, are related to feelings of anxiety and depression, which highlights the importance of feeling good about yourself.


What I learned about myself

Fortunately, our self-concept does not stop developing after adolescence. During the time that I studied self-concept in adolescents, I also learned a lot about myself: about my strengths and weaknesses as a researcher, and about the kind of scientist I want to be. For example, I can apply different types of research methods, and enjoy writing, but explaining my research findings in front of a camera is much more difficult for me. I have learned that the scientist I would most like to be is one who runs several different projects simultaneously, combining fundamental research with actively seeking to connect science to society, and collaborating in a team of other enthusiastic scientists. I am incredibly grateful that I have had the chance to work in such an inspiring team as the SYNC lab, and to gain experience with the many tasks that scientists have, such as conducting, analyzing, and writing up studies, teaching, outreach, and using open science and citizen science methods. Now that I got to know my main interests, strengths and weaknesses, I am looking forward to continuing to work in the SYNC lab at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and work to be the best scientist I can be.

Ever since I can remember I have been interested in how people behave, think, and interact with each other. When I started studying psychology, I discovered that I was especially fascinated by development: I could read and talk about it for hours on end. This quickly gave rise to new questions. How is it possible that tiny, helpless babies turn into adults that contribute to our society? And how can we make sure that young people grow up to become the best version of themselves? My passion for research was born. I took a specific interest in the teenage years, a period characterized by enormous social and neural changes.

There was one thing, however, that bothered me. During my studies, most of the literature and lectures focused on everything that could go wrong during development. I learned about how specific changes in brain and behavior during the teenage years led to increases in risk-taking behaviors, substance (ab)use, and mental problems, such as depressions. I understood why my teachers focused on this: we want to help teenagers in trouble, to give them a better future and to diminish costs for society. Nonetheless, I could not shake the feeling that this was not all there was to say about adolescence, the period between childhood and adulthood. Most of my friends did not get into trouble in their teenage years. And around me, I saw young people forge friendships, finish their education, and finding a way to contribute to our society. This sparked my curiosity. Are there also positive aspects of adolescence? Can adolescents be characterized as kind and generous, for example? And how do young people develop into adults with strong relationships, and valuable contributions to society? I did not know the answers to these questions, but one thing I knew for sure: I had to find out!

It turned out that I was not the only one asking these questions. I soon found a group of researchers with highly similar interests, and luckily, I was able to start a PhD project under the supervision of Professor Eveline Crone and dr. Kiki Zanolie. In this project, which I conducted from January 2017 until April 2021, I was given the opportunity to study the development of prosocial behavior in adolescence. Prosocial behaviors are behaviors that benefit others, such as giving, helping, and cooperating. These behaviors are beneficial to the individuals this behavior is directed at – whether it be friends, unfamiliar others, or society at large. However, showing these behaviors is also beneficial for young people themselves: it is related to positive outcomes such as improved mental health and having better social relationships. I quickly realized that this was the ultimate opportunity to study possible positive aspects of adolescence.

During my project, I conducted five studies in adolescents aged 9-25 years. I specifically focused on giving, a type of prosocial behavior that is important for forming and maintaining social relationships. I combined multiple research methods, such as surveys, economic games, and MRI scans, to tap into the mechanisms that underlie giving decisions in adolescence. This allowed me to decompose how giving is dependent on context: who is the benefactor, the beneficiary, and what is the situation?

This led to several important discoveries. First, my dissertation shows that adolescents, often regarded as egocentric risk-takers, were actually generous towards others. Second, giving behavior was highly dependent on context. For example, adolescents are more generous to friends compared to unfamiliar others, and when they are being observed by others. Older adolescents increasingly adjusted their giving to the social context: they differentiated more between friend and unfamiliar others. Third, adolescents’ giving behavior was associated with activation in brain regions that are important for cognitive control, emotional processing, and social-information processing. I discovered that some brain regions were specifically involved in deciding upon the level of generosity, whereas other were important for processing the social context. One region, the precuneus, was involved in both. A lot of brain regions were more active for giving to friends compared to unfamiliar others, highlighting the importance of friendships in adolescence. Finally, older adolescents showed increased activation in brain regions implicated in cognitive control for small size giving, suggesting a possible role for these regions in incorporating the social context in giving decisions.

All in all, my PhD project gave me the opportunity to answer some of the questions that have captivated me since my studies. But the work is not done yet. First, on February 10, I will have the opportunity to publicly defend my dissertation. Specifically, I will give a brief presentation about my work, after which I will answer questions put forward by a doctoral committee. If all goes well, I will officially obtain my degree and can consequently call myself Dr. van de Groep. Although the prospect of this celebratory day excites me very much, there is one thing that excites me even more. I will be able to continue my research at the Erasmus SYNC lab at Erasmus University Rotterdam. I feel very motivated to discover even more about adolescents’ prosocial development, and I feel grateful that I was able to turn my passion into my profession!