A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

One on one with Dr. Sophie Seidenbecher

With the recent kick-off meeting of the jNWG at the LIN, I took the opportunity to interview Dr. Sophie Seidenbecher, one of the core members of the initiative. The purpose of this was to get to know her a little bit better and hear her take on the importance of an organization solely established for promoting early-career scientists.

Sophie enjoying the artistic allure of her graduation cap

The following entails the email interview I had with Sophie:

For those who don’t really know you, can you give a little background to what you do and how you got there?

For 4 years, I’ve been working at the Danish Research Institute for Translational Neuroscience (DANDRITE) in Aarhus Denmark, initially as a research assistant, then a Ph.D. student and now as a postdoc. My research revolves around foraging decisions and behavior—which I want to understand in the David Marr sense, by studying them on three levels: the context, the algorithmic structure (by means of computational models) and the biological implementation. I am using Drosophila to address those three levels, while the rest of the lab is using mice to do the same.

In the long run, we want to get a bigger picture of foraging behavior across species. Before coming to Denmark, I studied physics at the TU Berlin and wrote my master’s thesis at the MPI CBS in Leipzig on perceptual decision-making.

What inspired you to this line of research?

During my studies in Berlin, I was regularly branching out from physics to see what active research in the different areas that interested me would look like. In my masters, I took a few very good courses in non-linear statistics, which I enjoyed immensely and where many cool applications came from biology and neuroscience in particular.

So I started out somewhat naively in decision-making and decided to try and go deeper into the field (and into the model organism that is). And so, I ended up with fruit flies in Denmark *smile*

What are the broader implications of your work?

Foraging is behavior that all moving animals exhibit to survive and it’s therefore conceivable that strategies have evolved, even across species, that enable successful foraging and that these strategies have a genetic implementation. My aim was to find (some) of these implementations. But this is quite a big endeavor and since Ph.D. fellowships in Denmark are limited to three years, I wasn’t able to finish this project.

I did, however, find that the foraging behavior I was studying in my setup could not be explained by one model alone which is a common approach in the field and which we think is too reductionist. So I used many different measures to more conclusively describe the foraging decisions I see and by parameterizing those, I can now look for genes that alter those parameters and thereby link them to foraging behavior.

Last week at the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology, a bunch of students and post-docs got together for the kick-off meeting of the jNWG, a growing subset of the NWG. With so many different organizations and societies, can you tell us how the jNWG stands out and why you are advocating for its growth?

Early career neuroscientists marinating their minds with new ideas at the jNWG kick-off meeting at the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology

First of all, the jNWG is a section of the NWG, like for example the section Computational Neuroscience or Molecular Neurobiology. As such, we want to be a representation of all early-career neuroscientists in the NWG. That means having a vote on inner-societal decisions, such as membership fees, but also on the shape of the NWG Göttingen meeting, or elections of European neuroscience offices. Additionally, we understand our representation of ‘young’ neuroscientists as one where we want to draw more attention to existing programs and, if missing, provide our own workshops that aim at career development. That also includes offering more networking opportunities within Germany and Europe.

In the future, we also want to represent doctoral and postdoctoral neuroscientists on the political level and all of these aspects only make sense, when we actually speak for a larger group of people and in order to do so, we also need to hear about actual wishes, needs, and ideas.

Unlike a lot of other careers, scientists often claim that if their work is good enough, they will be noticed. What do you think about this?

This is certainly true to some extent. If you manage to get your great work published in a high-ranking journal (in our current system), it will receive attention and recognition. But this may not be enough, since really many scientists do good work and produce solid, well-written papers, yet they aren’t noticed much by the greater community. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to meet with the people that work in your field of research, talk to them and stay in touch. Draw attention to yourself by showing your contribution, save time and money on unsuccessful experiments by discussing with fellow doctoral or postdoctoral students, get even better ideas for new experiments and potentially a collaborator to do them with, increase your chances to be invited to a symposium because a professor remembered your groundbreaking idea, or get offers for your next positions this way.

I also personally benefitted immensely from networking at conferences or schools, and therefore the jNWG also puts a great focus on networking opportunities.

As one of the attendees of the kick-off meeting, I was really impressed at how you wanted involvement from all of us at such an early stage. Why did you think this was important?

The jNWG has many smaller and bigger aims that we would like to achieve, which are based on our own experiences and wishes. However, we do not want to decide for the people we wish to represent but together with them! So we are curious to hear what other ‘young’ neuroscientists think would help them build their career and also involve them in making it happen.

Besides that, we are Ph.D. students and postdocs ourselves with correspondingly little time on our hands and we simply depend on more heads to spread the workload on *smile*. So this was the purpose of our kickoff meeting, to get more ideas and motivate a few more enthusiasts to join our efforts.

One of the ideas generated in the kick-off meeting was to have workshops for early-career scientists. What kind of skills do you think are important for the next generation of scientists—in and out of academia?

I’m not sure if I can speak for the whole field and across longer timescales being a freshly minted postdoc myself *wink*. What I personally believe is important though, is confidence (while having in mind the seminal paper ‘unskilled and unaware of it’) and this is particularly true for women, at least in my personal experience with my female colleagues. This ranges from believing in your skills or daring to contact the PI you want to work with, to ask questions at conferences.

Aside from that, getting management skills is really important. By that, I don’t mean taking a business degree or the likes, but developing the skills to supervise students, to mentor students, to delegate tasks to people you work with such that the research project benefits. And of course, figuring out what you are really good at and what you enjoy doing. This helps with weeding out job choices and it makes work life easier to know where it’s better (and faster) to get assistance from other colleagues. And all of those things are important in both academia and industry.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to add about the jNWG?

The first official tweet of the jNWG!

If you like our initiative, get in touch with us! You can tell us what you think we should address and get active and make these things happen. We are for example preparing a scientific jNWG meeting next year and started developing an idea for a social at FENS 2020. If you enjoy writing, e.g. about your work, do also get in touch so we can discuss possible articles for the Neuroforum journal. You can reach us by email jnwg@nwg-info.de and we are working intensely on our own little website (jnwg.org) and on our twitter activity (@_jNWG).

There are a few practicalities I might add. For NWG members: there will be a re-selection of section affiliation by the end of this year, where you have the chance to select the jNWG and thereby give us representational legitimation. That includes that you can voice your opinions about NWG matters to us and we can bring it to the board. For others considering to become NWG members: ask your PIs to endorse your membership application and if they are not members themselves or there’s no second colleague around who is, get in touch with us to help you get your two endorsement signatures. Our activities are of course not dependent on a membership, but open to all interested (‘young’) neuroscientists.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay