What's your name, nationality, current function, and department?
My name is Margot Mangnus, and I come from Zeeuws-Vlaanderen in the Netherlands, although you could really almost call it Belgium. Three and a half years ago, I started as a PhD candidate in the Neurobiology of Language group, working closely with Jana Basnakova and Arjen Stolk at the DCCN. In addition to my research, I represent the PhD students within the DCCN in the Donders PhD council and help organize workshops, events and changes in policy to try to improve the daily lives of PhD students.
What is the topic of your PhD project and what does your work look like in practice?
In my PhD project, I focus on how people understand words, sentences and other communicative signals and how the brain supports this understanding. I am particularly interested in how the meaning of words is dependent on the context they appear in. For example, if someone says the word ‘plant’, it will be interpreted differently in a conversation about nature than a conversation about nuclear reactors. Similarly, a word can be interpreted differently with a different conversation partner, because of the previous conversations you have had or because of the shared knowledge between you and them. I am working with eye-tracking to find out which parts of the context people use to disambiguate words and functional MRI to see if the brain uses regions typically involved in language or in other processes, like processing social information. I am also interested in other aspects of communication, like being able to think about other people’s thoughts and perspectives, which is known as Theory of Mind. Another big question of my research is if these mechanisms are different in autistic and non-autistic people. In practice, I spend my time discussing ideas, approaches and results with my lab mates, collecting data in the MRI lab, and coding my analyses.
What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?
For almost 10 years now, I have been able to pursue my interest in linguistics and the brain in Nijmegen. I started my journey with a Bachelor’s study in Linguistics, with many elective courses on psycholinguistics and the brain. After that, I completed the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Master’s, doing my thesis project at the DCC about the influence of white matter structure on semantic control in patients with Primary Progressive Aphasia. I realized halfway into this research project that I really liked tackling these questions and constantly learning new things. That’s why I decided to apply to PhD positions in the Netherlands. After handing in my master’s thesis, I applied to the position I am working on now and I was very happy to have the position offered to me.
What aspect of your job do you excel at?
During my PhD, I have been honing the skill of turning research questions into analyses. I really enjoy thinking about questions and breaking them down into smaller steps to get to the answer or the effect that I am interested in.
What do you wish you would have known when you started your PhD project?
The idea that you don’t have to do everything by yourself, and to see your project not as necessarily yours and not anyone else’s, but to think of it more as a collaboration with you and your supervisors. I have had (and still have at times) the tendency to want to solve everything by myself, but often it is helpful to ask for help or someone else’s ideas on an approach. There might be a problem or a bug that you are stuck on that might take you hours to fix, while a colleague would help you fix it in a few minutes. This colleague would of course take only a few minutes, because they have spent hours on this problem previously themselves!
What does your perfect weekend look like?
The most relaxing weekend that I can imagine would involve: hanging out with friends, playing board games, working on a hobby project, going climbing, and spending time with my partners.
What is the most important advice you want to share with Donders PhD candidates?
Get comfortable with the feeling of initially not knowing how to solve a problem. Getting a PhD is in the first place about the learning trajectory of how to be an independent researcher. In a way, if there was nothing left for you to learn in your PhD, then there would be need for you to get one. Most things you will do throughout your PhD, you will do for the first time, so it makes complete sense that you will make mistakes.