Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Micha Heilbron

Date of news: 3 May 2019

What's your name, nationality,current function, and departmentThe Life Of photo micha

Micha Heilbron, a Dutch PhD candidate at the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging.

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

I’m studying how context-based expectations and predictions guide language processing in the brain. In practice this means that occasionally I put people in the scanner while they are reading text or listening to speech, and spend the rest of the year in front of the computer trying to make sense of the data. I’m keen on making my hypotheses more explicit using computational models borrowed from cognitive science and artificial intelligence, which in practice means I spend even more time thrashing around on the computer.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

First a comedian; later a physicist. Not sure what caused the transition.

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

I started with a broad programme in Natural Sciences and Social Sciences, with the intention of majoring in physics. But the more I learned about modern physics, the more it seemed dauntingly – even boringly – complete to me. Then I attended a lecture on cognitive neuroscience and it was the exact opposite of physics. Two hours of fascinating questions, often without even a sketch of an answer. In neuroscience, it seemed, almost everything was up for grabs. I ended up getting an undergraduate degree in neurobiology, and in theoretical philosophy on the side. For my neuroscience Msc. I went abroad, to London and to Paris. Afterwards I wanted to return to the Netherlands for the doctorate. Donders seemed like the best place to be – and I was lucky enough that it all worked out.

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

I’m supervised by Floris de Lange and Peter Hagoort. But both are full professors with an even fuller calendar so we mostly discuss the high level questions, research directions and experimental design. For the nitty-gritty stuff I collaborate with PhD students and Post-Docs, like David Richter and Matthias Ekman, who learned me the practicalities of fMRI.

What aspect of your job is or has been a challenge for you?

Doing research requires patience, persistence, and resilience. I spent the best part of last summer piloting and optimising a technique that in the end didn’t properly work, and we ended up dropping the entire component from the experiment. Failure is an essential part of the scientific process, and giving up at the right moment is an important skill. But spending months on getting something tiny to work and failing is not the shortest route to happiness.

Also, my work is very fundamental. And while I’m excited about the questions I investigate, it is at times difficult to escape this creeping sense that I should be doing something useful with my life – like saving the planet, curing cancer or helping humanity.

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

Never be intimidated by something you don’t yet understand – especially when it involves equations. Also, talk to your supervisor when in doubt. It will always be for the better.