Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Anne-Kathrin Brehl

Date of news: 6 January 2019

Anne-KathrinWhat's your name, nationality, current function, and department?
Anne-Kathrin Brehl, German, PhD student, CNS department (DCCN)

What is the topic of your PhD project and what does your work look like in practice?

I am investigating neurophysiological mechanisms of anxiety by applying fMRI in a large population of highly anxious individuals. In my first project I test a model where we propose three potential mechanisms that all lead to the same symptoms of anxiety. We aim to stratify a large highly anxious population based on which of those mechanisms is mostly pronounced in the individual. In a second project, we test this model in patients with anxiety disorders that are about to start an exposure therapy program. Based on their neuroimaging results before treatment we aim to predict the treatment outcome for the individual patient. Over the long term, we hope to contribute to a more individualized biomarker-guided treatment selection in psychiatry.

Who are you working with and what do these collaborations look like?

My PI is Guillen Fernandez with Nils Kohn as my daily supervisor. Nils is a really good mentor concerning the daily tasks of handling my project and a great help when it comes to fMRI analysis. For the psychiatric sides of my project I am also supervised by Aart Schene from the UMC psychiatry department. Luckily I usually have two students helping me with recording and analyzing this rather large dataset, and I enjoy working together. We just started a collaboration with Pro Persona, a local psychiatry where we recruit patients for participation in the second study of my PhD. So I am also communicating a lot between the clinic and their research coordination to get this joint project started.

What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?

I first studied classical piano at the music conservatorium in Duesseldorf. After my diploma I moved to Hamburg where I further studied music with double bass as a major and in parallel started a Bachelor in psychology at Hamburg University. Just after my first Master’s year I got a scholarship for a Master’s program in the UK - so I finally had to decide between music and psychology. I quit in Hamburg and moved to London for a MSc in clinical and cognitive neuroscience. There I chose for a pathway that focused on methods and techniques in neuroscience. When I came back to Europe ;) I still finished the psychology Master’s program in Hamburg but I already moved to Nijmegen for my thesis at the neurophysiology lab at the Donders. For my thesis I studied synaptic neuroplasticity at the single cell level. I liked the Donders and life in the Netherlands a lot and found a PhD project that nicely combined psychology and neuroscience. So I switched to the memory and emotion lab.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

I think I always wanted to become a musician. From early on I was involved in music education and never really questioned that pathway. I started playing the piano when I was six and grew into that classical music world accompanied by inspiring teachers but also a lot of competition and pressure. After high school I first finished a music education as a pianist. Besides my love for music I always found myself peaking outside this bubble. A first lecture in music perception and books from Oliver Sacks and Eric Kandel sparked my interest for neuroscience. Even though I am still fascinated by great musicians and by the strength and creativity of many of my friends from that time who chose for that career path, I am happy with my decision to quit. This career switch certainly taught me that we all have many talents and can be good in many different things and enjoy those as long as we stay curious and open-minded. Unfortunately, life is too short for many different careers.

What does your perfect weekend look like?

A perfect weekend would start with a walk across the market to buy fresh vegetables, followed by a coffee with a friend at one of my favorite coffee places in Nijmegen. I would probably spend the afternoon practicing piano and at night cook for friends or go out for a red wine. Sunday I would either go for a long walk, follow a yoga class, or stroll through a neighboring city or a museum. That actually rather describes a typical Nijmegen weekend… A prefect weekend would probably be a trip to Hamburg, Berlin, Duesseldorf or Austria to visit my family and friends. But a Nijmegen weekend is also pretty perfect to me.

What is the most important advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?

I think what I learned from switching between such different fields is that there are many career paths that one can enjoy and succeed in. That insight took away a lot of pressure for me. It is great to have a goal and be fully committed and at times this is also absolutely necessary during your PhD. But being too focused on one potential future path narrows the perspectives and risks to overlook great chances that might show up just along the way. So my advice would be to always stay open-minded and explore your future options with creativity.

Is there a project or anything you're involved with that you'd like to promote?

Yes! I am a member of the Donders PhD council. The council organizes all sorts of events and workshops tailored to the interests and needs of PhD students. We are always looking for topics and ideas that might be interesting to many of us – if you have anything in mind or you come across a great speaker / workshop that might be an enrichment to PhD students, let us know! We are currently also looking for a new member to join us. If you are interested to get involved, get in touch with Lieke or me.