What's your name, nationality, current function, and department?
My name is Lennart Oblong and I grew up in the city of Duesseldorf, which is fairly close to the Dutch border in Germany. I am just starting my second year as a PhD student in the Psychiatry and Neuroimaging Genetics group at the CNS under the supervision of Emma Sprooten. For my project, I’m engaged in using both neuroimaging and quantitative genetics methodologies and data. As such I am associated with the DCCN, the CNS, and additionally with the Human Genetics department at the Radboud UMC.
What is the topic of your PhD project and what does your work look like in practice?
Generally, my work is focused on better understanding the influences of genetic variation on brain and behavior, in the context of the intergenerational transmission of mental health related metrics. What this means in practice is that we are developing and adjusting new statistical methods to extract hidden factors from genome-wide association study summary statistics that relate to brain MRI and behavioral phenotypes. With the first paper to come out of my PhD project we have established the stability and reproducibility of these novel methods across independent samples, and showed that we capture genetic effects that cluster along the boundaries of specific MRI modalities and MRI-derived imaging features. Going forward, wewill focus on using these genetic factors to estimate the “polygenic risk” for developing brain-related phenotypes (e.g. clinical/cognitive/behavioral metrics) on an individual level. Ultimately, we hope that these methods will allow us to identify concerted genetic effects that associate with mental health and other brain related metrics, thereby shedding light on which (and how) genes work together to influence our brain and behavior. This may further enable us to delineate genetic from environmental influences on mental health, which is also pretty neat.
What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?
I started my academic pursuits as a Bachelor’s student of general Biology in 2014, at the Heinrich-Heine University in Duesseldorf. Back then I had no particular interest in any branch of Biology but a very general interest in how everything alive “worked”, and how things even come to be alive in the first place. It was during my Bachelor’s studies that I began to appreciate themind-bending complexity of the human brain, and that I wanted to study it. This lead me to pursue the Master’s in Medical Biology: Neurobiology at the RU, which in turn lead to an internship at the Statistics in Imaging Neuroscience group at the Donder’s, where I was properly exposed to multiple neuroimaging modalities and advanced statistics for the first time. This in turn lead to another internship, this time in Psychiatry and Imaging Genetics, where my education was expanded by quantitative genetics and imaging genetics. I realized that I found all of this incredibly interesting, so much so that I decided to ask my then internship-supervisor for a PhD position in the department. Luckily, I was doing well enough so that they decided to take me on as a PhD student, and I’m very happy with this position.
Who are you working with and what do these collaborations look like?
As part of the European funded FAMILY consortium, my work consists of working with large data that was acquired all across Europe. Likewise we freely share our results with the other researchers involved to meet the overarching goals of FAMILY. This organizational framework nurtures international collaboration, which, in my view, is essential for obtaining the requisite data to better understand the genetic foundations of the human brain.
What is your favorite book and why?
This is a head-to-head between multiple, but on the spot I would have to go with Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”. This book is a somewhat autobiographical, science fiction-ish piece about the bombing of Dresden (in Germany) during the second world war. While the topic of the book may be very serious it was advertised to me as the “best anti-war novel of all time”, and I tend to agree. It is a brilliant mix of the personal experiences of someone who experienced the war first hand, deep moral insights, strange science fiction elements, andinfused with such brilliant wit and humour that it is a joy to read. 10/10.
What does your perfect weekend look like?
On the weekends I like to start slow, sleep in and prepare a big German-style breakfast before getting comfortable on the couch, with a big mug of coffee. Then, I like to do some sports around noon and meet friends and family in the afternoon and evening. On the perfect weekend, the latter is ideally supplemented with some food-event, flea market, concert or outdoor activity if the weather allows for it.
What is the most important advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?
Trust in your own abilities, you got this far after all. Talk openly about your fears and shortcomings, people listen and are happy to help. Mistakes help us learn so let’s keep making them.