Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Francesco Poli

Date of news: 28 June 2021

francescopoli-3What's your name, nationality, current function, and department?
My name is Francesco, I’m from Italy and I’m currently in my third year of the PhD at the Donders Center for Cognition, where I work with Sabine Hunnius and Rogier Mars.

What is the topic of your PhD project and how does your work look like in practice?
We are investigating the cognitive mechanisms that underlie learning and exploration in infants and young children. Even if babies seem helpless when they’re born, they quickly learn about the physical and social learn around them. We are trying to understand how babies learn so much in so little time. To do so, we use behavioral and eye tracking tasks in combination with computational modeling.

In practice, my days are always different. I have to come up with new ideas and experimental paradigms that are suitable for studying babies, which can be a challenge at times. Then I have to implement those ideas, and this requires activities like video editing and programming. When we test babies, they come to the lab with the parents and we try our best to make both the adults and the little ones interested and curious in what we do. The most important thing is that they have a nice experience and get to know our center, the quality of data comes second, and it’s usually a consequence of the first: if babies are happy, they’ll be great participants too! Then there is data analysis, which is again a lot of programming, and then writing, presenting, discussing results and new ideas. So it’s never boring!

What did you want to be when you were younger?
I wanted to be an explorer. My dream was to jump on a vessel and get to an island where no one had been before, and see animals that had never been seen by anyone else.

What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?
I studied psychology in Milan, and moved to Padua for my Master’s degree. I got passionate about developmental and comparative studies, so I did a research in Morocco on macaques and visited the Max Plank Institute in Leipzig, where I got to test great apes with eye tracking. I then moved to St Andrews to work on my master’s thesis on adults’ and infants’ theory of mind. Finally, I decided to come to Nijmegen because the PhD position offered here was combining some of my expertise (eye tracking and infant research) with areas of research I was very interested in but knew very little about (computational modeling, learning and exploration).

Who are you working with and what do these collaborations look like?
My main supervisors are Sabine Hunnius and Rogier Mars, and once a week we have a meeting with the three of us, and this is definitely the core of my PhD. At the same time, I think it’s great to remember that collaborations (both within the Donders and between different universities) can be super helpful: if there are researchers with skills that your group misses, or that are carrying out research on topics you really like, there might be an opportunity for collaborations. For example, Max Hinne (at Donders) has been super helpful in sharing knowledge and insights on Bayesian modeling, and it’s been great working with him!

What does the Donders Institute mean to you?

The Donders Institute is the first place in which all the dreams that I had as a student transformed into something concrete. I really feel my ideas are listened and supported here, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

What does your perfect weekend look like?

The perfect weekend is taking a train to visit some new place with old friends. But as long as I can do some climbing or bouldering, I’ll be having a great weekend!

What is the most important advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?
The PhD is all about learning: Don’t focus only on achieving results, but also on learning that skill you would really love to have, making that research experience you always wanted to make, collaborate with researchers whose work you admire... Anything that you like and that will be useful in your (academic) life after the PhD.

Do you have any handy PhD project-related tips and tricks to share?
Pick research questions that really make you curious and passionate. The Donders has so much to offer both in terms of facilities and great people to collaborate with. You’re not alone in your PhD, and if you find something that keeps you motivated and surround yourself with great colleagues, you’ll have an amazing experience.