Stichting Ammodo, For arts, architecture and science

Roshan Cools

on the value of international experience for a career in science

Roshan Cools

Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry Roshan Cools is one of the members of the Social Sciences advisory committee for the newly launched Ammodo Science Fellowship, a EUR 50,000 to EUR 200,000 postdoctoral fellowship for research abroad. We asked her for the when writing a research application and the value of international exchange. Before taking a permanent position at the Radboudumc in Nijmegen in 2007, Cools spent several years doing research abroad including a two-year postdoc in the US city of Berkeley. “It was the most fantastic time of my life,” she says.

When did you become interested in science and research?

Very early on! My father was a passionate brain scientist, so at the breakfast table we talked about the brain mechanisms of schizophrenia and psychoses. I always wanted to understand why someone behaves the way they do. Moreover, when I was quite young, my cousin became psychotic which of course made a big impression on me. Then I started studying psychology and a research internship at a hospital for chronic schizophrenia patients further my interest in (clinical) research.

Your academic career took you from Groningen via Cambridge and Berkeley to Nijmegen. Please elaborate!

After studying in Groningen, I was keen to investigate the behaviour and brain mechanisms of monkeys. I approached Cambridge Professor Trevor Robbins, who is known for his animal research, for a research internship. After completing that internship, I started my PhD research with Robbins, although not about animals but about the role of the dopamine system in Parkinson’s disease in the human brain.

Anatomical model of the basal ganglia and the brainstem, the location of the brain's reward mechanism.

Berkeley followed. How did you get there?

When working on my PhD at Cambridge, it became clear that I wanted to pursue research on dopamine, so I started looking for professors who were leading the field. MRI scanners were just emerging then – it was cutting-edge research – and the great pioneer of MRI, Mark D’Esposito, was in Berkeley. I contacted him and in the third year of my PhD I was allowed to visit him. I remember clearly my first time in San Francisco: those impressive buildings, it felt just like being in a movie! I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to work and live. Still, it took another two years. I had to arrange a fellowship myself and create my own ‘story’ which D’Esposito thought would be good for my career. Also, I was in a relationship and my partner had to organise things so that he could come with me from Cambridge to Berkeley. Fortunately, it all worked out!

How did you experience the postdoc at Berkeley?

Those two years were a fantastic time in my life. I threw myself wholeheartedly into researching our dopamine system and cognition. How does that fascinating little substance affect your brain, behaviour, motivation, and self-control? It was also a really fun place to live, and I enjoyed that side of it just as much: skiing, surfing, hiking and mountain biking. On Friday afternoons, the whole lab went to the beach, where we thought up new experiments in between surfing and sunbathing.

What eventually brought you back to the Netherlands?

For my boyfriend’s sake, we returned to Cambridge, but when the relationship broke up, I decided it was time for a fresh start. My PhD advisor Trevor Robbins was a fantastic inspiration, but he’s also such a genius that it felt as if he had already had every idea I could think of. I needed to move to somewhere new to rediscover what I wanted. After several applications and a lot of deliberation, I decided to take the plunge and move to Nijmegen. The Donders Institute had just been set up which presented a fantastic opportunity. And now I am right here!

What has all this experience abroad brought you?

My time abroad has been essential to my research and my development as a researcher: it broadened my horizons, both literally and metaphorically. I still work with people in Berkeley and in Cambridge and all over the world now. You build networks that stand up to everything. That’s good for knowledge and innovation on a global level, but it’s also good for world peace. That may sound exaggerated, but I really believe this. You build a relationship of trust with people. For example, I now have researchers from China, India, and Iran in my group and they will soon set up a lab in their own countries. They not only gain scientific knowledge here but also take home a network and experience of Dutch (research) culture. And we also learn a lot from them; it is extremely valuable.

Can’t you also gain that experience by working at another lab within the Netherlands?

Of course, every lab has its own culture, but we are a tiny country and we do have a Dutch way of doing research. Especially if you stay within a certain discipline, you can’t escape it. Only when you go to another part of the world do you see how things can be done differently. Incidentally, one place is not necessarily better than another; above all, you learn that there is no single truth. The more you see, the more insight you gain to enable you to choose how to teach, how to research, and how to lead. I only went to Western countries, but of course the effect is even greater if you also gain experience in non-Western countries.

Can you give an example of differences in (lab) culture?

Cambridge was quite a hierarchical environment. At research meetings, professors sat at the front and engaged in plenty of discussion with the person giving the presentation. All the students sat at the back, kind of watching and trying to understand some of the jargon being used by the front row. In America, it was the exact opposite. The professor sat at the back while the undergraduates on the front row confidently contributed innovative perspectives. Americans are generally strong at communicating clearly and enthusiastically. Within Dutch (lab) culture, there is less attention given to this despite it being a valuable skill.

In Berkeley, the work-life balance was very good; in Cambridge, it was not. I spent my days in dusty buildings and at night the most we did was go to the pub with colleagues. The British also seem to care less about infrastructure. For years, I was in an office that was too high to get the cobwebs off the ceiling. I had to bring my own laptop. I did learn to take initiative that way. It was very different when I arrived in Nijmegen. Here, things like offices and scanners are fantastically well organised. When I arrived at the Donders Institute, I was able to just sit down and start right away.

Also, the elitist, hierarchical culture at Cambridge was sometimes a bit intimidating, but I also found it fun and stimulating. It really is all about the ideas there and I benefited a lot from that intellectual stimulation.

In short, with a postdoc abroad, you broaden your horizons, build a network and grow as a researcher.

That’s nicely summed up!

Do you encourage your own students to go abroad for a postdoc?

This is an interesting question because I am aware of the pressure often put on young scientists. For some, it is too much to expect them to move internationally. That is why I would never say that it is absolutely necessary to go abroad to succeed. At the same time, instinctively, I always feel it is a shame when newly promoted researchers who have a lot to offer tell me that they would prefer to stay in Nijmegen. I can’t help thinking come on, broaden your horizons a bit!

I have noticed that this is increasingly common, and suspect it has to do with recent social and political developments. In times of vulnerability, we often tend towards the safest option, which is very unfortunate. I always try to discuss this with young researchers. Especially now, international exchange is perhaps more important than ever. That is why I think it is fantastic that Ammodo is initiating this fellowship. I hope my story can inspire others. My parents really encouraged me at the time. It must have been difficult for them, but they said: this is a huge opportunity and an investment. I always looked at it as something temporary that I could enjoy. Afterwards you have time to settle down. When I was 35, I longed for more stability. Things worked out and, of course, I am grateful for that. But my time of discovery abroad brought me a lot.

You will be a member of the advisory committee that will review Fellowship applications within the Social Sciences domain after the summer. Do you have any tips for applicants?

Yes, I definitely have.

Tip 1: Choose a research topic that is close to your heart. Your own enthusiasm for the topic is a prerequisite for a convincing application.

Tip 2: Summarise your idea in a 5-minute pitch. This pitch should be understandable to someone without an academic background, e.g. your grandmother. This way, you force yourself to get to the point and summarise the whole thing comprehensibly. Do this before you start your application. You will save yourself a lot of time if you know exactly what you want to research before you start writing the application.

Tip 3: Provide a good outline of the problem that gives rise to your research. Your research question should follow logically from this. This is the crux of a good fellowship application: the context for your research question is at least as important as the question itself. Lots of young researchers do excellent work, but do not always realise its value or cannot communicate it properly. After reading your application, it should be clear why your research is urgent, innovative and promising and what the benefit to science or society will be if you succeed in answering the question.

Tip 4: Get your proposal read by as many people as possible, preferably from different academic backgrounds. That way, you will benefit from feedback from multiple perspectives.

Finally, if you have managed to find a topic that touches you and your gut tells you this is the one, writing an application can be incredibly fun! The clarifying effect of writing and delineating what you want to know and what steps you want to take in the near future is rewarding in itself. You then know where you want to head, even if you don’t get the grant. Several roads lead to Rome, but simply knowing where Rome is is already a great start!


Photos: Florian Braakman