Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Joanna Rutkowska

Date of news: 19 August 2022


What's your name, nationality, current function, and department?
My name is Joanna Rutkowska. I am Polish and I am a fifth-year (yes, you read that right) PhD candidate at the DCC in the BabyBRAIN Group. I have also just finished my work as a PhD representative on our Donders PhD council.

What is the topic of your PhD project and how does your work look like in practice?
My PhD project is mainly on the topic of how young children develop the ability to learn about the social world from others’ movements. This encompasses knowing about others’ emotions or future actions from their current movement when carrying out an action. For example, we pick up an object differently depending on whether we want to throw it or put it away in a small container. My work on the PhD project is mainly setting up behavioural and eye-tracking experiments with infants around one year of age. This is quite a challenge as you can imagine, since they will not sit still or participate in the experiment unless you make it nice and engaging for them! I also conducted a study with adults and supervised a group of bachelor students working on their thesis and a masters student on their internship.

What did you want to be when you were younger?
The first profession I considered was to be a ballet dancer, when I was around 4-5-years-old. Unfortunately, it quickly turned out I am quite clumsy and NOT a good dancer, so my dreams were crushed. When I started school and learning about history, I wanted to study it and become a museum curator. This changed when I started my psychology class in high school (thank you, International Baccalaureate programme). Reading about all the seminal studies in psychology that people have conducted in the past was very inspiring and from then on, I knew I wanted to conduct psychology research.

What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?
I started by doing a Master of Arts (equal to Bachelor) degree in Psychology at the University of St Andrews that I completed with distinction. During my undergraduate time, I managed to get a place in Laidlaw Leadership and Research Programme that was heavily focused on the development as a scholar/scientist and involved completing a short summer research project. I did a project on facial perception then, and I later continued in the same lab with my Master thesis.  I also completed my Master of Science degree in Evolutionary and Comparative Psychology at the University of St Andrews. There, I met Malinda Carpenter who was my true inspiration behind pursuing a PhD place in developmental psychology.

Who are you working with and what do these collaborations look like?
I work together with a team in a developmental science lab at the University of Milano-Bicocca on two studies investigating the processing of emotional movement kinematics in children. One of those studies is set up in their lab in Milan and uses EEG, and one of them is set up in Nijmegen and uses eye-tracking. We keep each other up-to-date via email, but we also meet 2-3 times a year to discuss the progress of both projects. I am also working together with two researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova on a project on infants’ sensitivity to others’ intentions displayed in their movement. This was a great opportunity since they are the leading scientists similar research conducted with adults. We have conducted the study in Nijmegen, but it was designed and pre-registered together, and soon we will meet to talk about the results and the write up.

What does the Donders Institute mean to you?
It means to me this amazing community of scientists and administration staff that work together and support each other. If I have a question about my analysis or my design, there is always someone willing to help.

What is the most important piece of advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?
Ask for help when you need it (and possibly before the problem has escalated). Be it with your mental health, the atmosphere or relationships in your workplace, or any aspect of your research, like programming. There is always someone you can contact that can help you, and we have various support services available at Donders Institute.

Is there a project or anything you’re involved with that you’d like to promote?
I am currently finishing my term on PNN (Promovendi Netwerk Nederland/PhD Network Netherlands) board as a member with portfolio focusing on international, scholarship and external PhD candidates. We are looking for new members for the academic year 2022/2023. You can find the vacancies here (two of them do not require speaking Dutch, including my position). If you want to improve the situation of the PhD candidates in the Netherlands, join us!

I am also currently a general board member of Eurodoc (The European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers), where I work closely with the Employment and Career Development Working Group and on our contact with the national associations (like PNN!). If you are curious about what we are working on, you can visit our website and join any of the working groups.