Interview with Laura Kress, a SGS-CLM member working on her PhD project “Neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the link between optimism bias and attention bias”
Briefly describe what your research topic is about.
In contrast to patients with depression, most healthy people show two cognitive biases that are important for well-being and mental health: Optimism bias (having overly optimistic expectancies about the future), and positive attention bias (preferably attending to positive compared to neutral information in the environment). However, it is still unclear how these two biases interact and whether they mutually enforce each other. In my research I therefore examine how optimistic future expectancies influence our attention on the one hand, and how biased attention to positive stimuli influences optimistic expectancies on the other hand. To get a better understanding of the neurophysiological basis of these interactions I use different methods, such as behavioural experiments, eye tracking, physiological measures (e.g. heartrate and blood pressure), and neuroimaging (fMRI).
Why did you choose to pursue a PhD? What is your motivation?
My passion for neuroscience was triggered when I did my first internship in a neuroimaging institute at the University of Giessen, where I studied psychology. I really appreciated getting a closer insight to neuroscientific work at a very early stage of my Bachelor and actually ended up working there until the end of my Master studies. Coming from research that focused mainly on fear-related processes, I was really happy to be able to study a very positive and health-related topic such as optimism during my PhD here at the University of Bern. Whereas I simply enjoy scientific work and the international atmosphere at the University in general, my biggest motivation for doing research and pursuing a PhD has always been the hope that someday, we might be able to apply the findings from our basic research to treatments for instance used in psychotherapy, and therefore help people who suffer from psychological disorders.
What is the nicest thing and what is the worst when doing a PhD?
Being able to constantly learn new things, work on topics that you are intrinsically interested in, and travel to conferences or workshops and meet people from all over the world - there are definitely some really nice features of being a PhD student. The most difficult part is probably that processes in science are slow, and it can take years from coming up with the idea for an experiment to finally holding the output of all the work in the form of a published paper in your hands.
You received a travel grant – where did you go? What did you do?
Yes, I am very thankful for having received a travel grant from the Graduate School. I am currently visiting Erno Hermann's Cognitive Affective Neuroscience Lab at the Donders Institute of Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in the Netherlands. The Donders Institute is a leading research centre with international reputation hosting numerous experts in neuroscience. I am here for three months to analyse the neuroimaging data I acquired in Bern with the help of the experts at the Donders Institute. Going abroad with a travel grant is a great opportunity to see how research is done in other labs and meet new people for future collaborations.
Do you have any advice you would like to give to future PhD students?
Use the opportunities that you get! I think an important feature of being a successful scientist is saying 'yes' at the right moments (e.g. apply for a travel grant when your graduate school offers one, and agree to give a talk at a conference, even if it might scare you a little bit in the beginning).
Where would you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I am quite optimistic about still doing research in 10 years - maybe in combination with working as a psychotherapist.