Saturday, 14 January 2012

Academic Profile: Christa

Christa, last name available upon request for those that do not know already

The Netherlands

Profession (what it entails etc):
I am a scientist in Cognitive Neuroscience. I am specialised in how the brain processes (sensory) information for perception, action and learning and how we can use this knowledge to improve the design of new products. I have done both fundamental and applied research in this area and supervised master and PhD students with their research.

Master in (Applied) Experimental Psychology
PhD Psychophysics of sensori-motor control (Human Movement Sciences)

Favourite aspect of your job
Exploring new questions and thinking of ways to research them.
Making other people’s life easier by translating scientific progress to society
Stimulating young people’s interest in science
Hand them acquire the knowledge that they need to excel.

Hahahahahaha, I guess I like most aspects of my job.

What do you think it means to be a female academic?
A lot of hard work. As my PhD supervisor once said, as a woman you need to perform twice as well to get the same rewards as a male academic. Fortunately, this is not difficult.

What was the biggest challenge you face working in your field?
1. Working every 2 – 4 years in a new lab, sometimes even in a different country, for about the first 7-10 years of your career. This makes it incredibly hard to stay in science if you have family obligations.
2. Getting grants for your own research ideas

What can you suggest to other women who want to enter this field?
Realize the impact this career choice will have on your life. It is very hard to be involved with someone outside science because they don’t understand the crazy hours that you make for almost no money. You need to also be aware that this career choice will result in a highly unpredictable future, which makes family planning very difficult.

What are your interests outside of academics?
My family, science, writing crappy SF/vampire/mystery/romance novels, reading (no specific genre as long as it is good), sports, social media and their stupid games on which I spend way too much time, meeting up with friends, drinking and dancing.

Are you a mother? If so, how do you balance work and motherhood?
Yes I am; I have two boys. Sybrand is 1.5 and Findlay is almost 5.

I work 4 days a week of which 2 days at home and 2 days a week in the lab. The boys go to nursery 2 days a week, my husband takes care of them 1 day a week, so do I and so does my mum. So they see a lot of family, only not at the same time. The oldest goes to preschool. In Holland, both working conditions at university as the available childcare are pretty flexible, making it possible for me to stay within academia.

What are the most challenging aspects about being a mother and your work
Motherhood prevents me making 60-hour workweeks, which is normal in my field. I am often the only young researcher with children; most other parents in academia are at least 10 years older than me. This sets me back in publications, weakening my chances at getting a position. Fortunately, I work very efficiently; I seem to do nearly as much in a 40-hour workweek as my peers in their 60 hours. It seems that motherhood has enhanced my organisational and cognitive skills.

Another problem I often encounter with my peers at university is that they don’t understand that sometimes my family come first. A lot of them still live student-like lifestyles and don’t understand why I can’t go partying two days a week.

How did you do during your school life and university life?
My school and university life was pretty much average. Let’s just say I had a lot of other things on my mind besides studying.

I didn’t start to have an interest in science until I did my first experiment that was part of my master internship. Finally the reasoning behind all the courses in Psychology became clear and I really enjoyed setting up and performing the experiments, analyzing the data and finding an answer to the question I was investigating. Also, I found it extremely satisfying that my results were directly translated into specifications for the design of a new device for the visually impaired.

Were you extremely social?
Not extremely, but I make friends quite easily and I am very loyal, I like to stay in contact even when the person is at the other side of the world.

Or were you someone who preferred science over people?
To have a career in science you need to network, so I wouldn’t be where I was now if I preferred science over people in general. But I do prefer science over some people.

Any last pieces of advice to leave female kind
• Be yourself and don’t let others dictate how you should behave or what choices you should make.
• Let nobody ever tell you that you can’t do something. Most often they are wrong. But know your limits and adjust if you reach or cross them.
• Don’t act on impulse; sleep at least one night over every big decision that you need to make.
• Not only think of the direct consequences of your decision, but also of those that might arise 1, 5, 10 or 20 years down the road.
• Always have a back-up plan.
• You don’t need a man or woman to be complete. But it is nice to spend time with somebody that you really like.

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