At only 32, cognitive psychologist Louisa Bogaerts has already made significant inroads within the international scientific community. She has conducted research in three different parts of the world and now brings her experience back to where her career began, Ghent University.
Her ‘comeback’ is a result of the Odysseus programme, designed to attract internationally renowned researchers to Flanders by granting them funding to build their own research groups within Flemish universities. For her part, Louisa’s expertise lies in researching the role that memory processes play when learning to read.
As a researcher, you opted to go abroad at an early stage?
“‘For my PhD I had the opportunity to conduct my research abroad. I first went to Haskins Laboratories, part of Yale University, to study brain research using functional MRIs. For my postdoc, I went on to study brain research via EEG at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My research focused on developing new behavioural and brain metrics that would allow us to measure a person’s ability to learn repeated patterns.”
Thanks to the Odysseus programme, your expertise has now brought you back to Ghent University. What exactly does the programme entail?
“Here, I am able to set up my own research group. Moreover, this opportunity also affords me a permanent position as a professor. Such positions are scarce. Doing this at Ghent University makes it extra special, as this is where I studied and graduated. As such, I am familiar with their way of working. I already know a lot of my colleagues, I am aware of where the sensitivities lie and how things are generally handled. Moreover, the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences has grown substantially during my time away, having developed a considerable international appeal.”
Why is this international appeal so important?
“The more international the university, the more attractive it is to join. In our faculty, we welcome doctoral students from all over the world. My ideal team consists of people with different types of expertise, meaning that each is able to make their own contribution. Their background is of little significance. I believe in the strength of a diverse team. To that end, I hope to seek out curious and talented researchers from around the world to set up my new research group. Thanks to the international network I have built up, I am hoping this will be quite straightforward.”
Hoe belangrijk is buitenlandse ervaring voor jou?
“Een andere omgeving dwingt je om oude patronen los te laten en om verder te kijken. Plots moet je op een totaal andere manier werken. Je komt in contact met andere mensen, allemaal met specifieke interesses en skills. Ik zie dat als een groot cadeau: het helpt je te groeien, als mens én als onderzoeker. Ik ga mijn doctoraatsstudenten zeker aanmoedigen dat ook te doen.”
In your opinion, how important is experience abroad?
“Experiencing a new environment enables you to explore what lies beyond your old ways of thinking, forcing you to work in a completely different way. You come into contact with new people, all with their own interests and skill sets. I see this as a great gift. It helps you grow, both as a human being and as a researcher. I will certainly be encouraging my PhD students to do the same.”
Are there any specific lessons you have taken with you from your time abroad?
“The most important thing I have learnt is to embrace working as a team. In the American lab, there were literally no doors. Everyone was equally important to the team, from PhD students to professors. This is something I wish to incorporate here: a team in which everyone can make an equal contribution. In Jerusalem, this went even further. Undergraduate students were given the opportunity to ask critical questions during talks for the entire department. There was also more interaction between departments. For example, as a team specialising in experimental psychology, our entire lab attended a talk on social psychology. On another occasion, a professor doing research on food selection, not at all my field of expertise, asked for my help with analysing data. You learn a lot from such collaborations, as they force you to look outside of your field, thereby preventing you from becoming blinkered.”
Which experiences would you prefer not to take with you?
“The American way of communicating. Of course, you should not generalise. However, in my experience, things were often overly portrayed as going well, meaning that, as a research group, you would often see problems too little or too late. As for the academic landscape in France, I did not find this quite as appealing. Although it was a fantastic experience, there was a stricter distinction between teaching and research. Many professors were so busy teaching that they had little time left for their own research. I am very grateful that, in Ghent, I will have time for more intensive research.”
During her PhD at Ghent University, Louisa focused on the memory processes that are important for reading. In Marseille, she studied how people pick up on regularities. Thanks to a European scholarship, she then attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she developed new behavioural and brain metrics for implicit learning to see why some people pick up certain things automatically while others do not. Currently, she is completing a postdoc at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on how systemic patterns in our visual environment direct our attention.
With her research laboratory in Ghent, she now hopes to identify where differences in language and reading skills come from, asking why some people experience greater difficulty learning a second language or why some are able to read faster than others. Her focus lies not only with adults, but also with children. Should her research prove capable of explaining these disparities, Louisa plans to apply her findings to other cognitive processes in the future, such as facial or object recognition. Louisa blogs about cognitive research for Studio Brein at studio brein.
Louisa Bogaerts achieved her PhD in psychology from Ghent University in 2015. As a student, she would often retreat to the Boekentoren during exam time, where she was able to study in peace inside its beautiful reading room. In fine weather, she would have her lunch in the garden of the nearby St Peter's Abbey.