Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
Zoek in de site...

Xiaochen Zheng

Date of news: 25 February 2019


  1. What's your name, nationality, current function, and department?

Hey I am Xiaochen, from China, a last-year PhD student in DCC. I work with Ardi Roelofs (attention and language performance) and Kristin Lemhöfer (neurocognition of bilingualism).

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

I study how bilingual speakers control their languages in use and how they monitor their speech errors.

To investigate this, I record electrical signals of healthy human participants who speak two or more languages. I use psychological experiments to “mess up” their mind and make them "accidentally" choose the language they don't intend to speak. [evil smile]

Well, the fun part in which I can go to the lab every day is over now. For the moment, the majority of my time is spent on writing manuscripts, waiting for revisions, and writing revised manuscripts. So if you walk into my office you will most likely see me writing and analyzing, while casually adjusting my electric standing desk (yes this is just to show off) and waiting for my student to knock on my door so that I can help with some exciting debugging.

  1. What did you want to be when you were younger?

A writer - wait, how young are we talking about?

Early in primary school I published my first article in a local newspaper. Since then, I started to believe that I have a talent for putting words together. I kept writing and writing and (quite) a few of my writings ended up in magazines and other newspapers (how I wish they also count for Google Scholar!) The passion died out somewhere in high school, although sometimes I still write travel blogs.

They are all in Chinese though, in case you want to debunk me.

[Spoiler: This answer gets a bit ironic if you read Question 6.]

  1. What does the Donders Institute mean to you?

Donders is the reason why I came to the Netherlands.

Knowing no one who worked here, it was a pure choice of studying in "the best institute on cognitive neuroscience in Europe" (well, at least this was said somewhere on the Chinese internet) - and apparently I really like the word Best.

Or perhaps it is just the name Donders that stuck in my head since my bachelor study, when I learned the beautiful design of "Donders reaction time" in the course Experimental Psychology.

  1. What aspect of your job do you excel at?

Hmmm... accepting the fact that there are no simple answers in science, and bravely living on?

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


When I was writing a grant proposal for my PhD project, I really had a hard time. By then the mentor of my master study even asked me: "are you sure you want to do a PhD? If you don't enjoy writing you will probably not have fun in your PhD life".

Nevertheless I started my PhD and writing continued to be a big challenge for me. Imagine every time I happily tested all the participants, proficiently processed all the data, and sat relaxed with a cup of tea in front of the computer looking at my pretty plots - and the uneasy thought suddenly occurred to me: oh no, now I have to write it up... Writing up the introduction of my second paper took me FOUR months. Jeez, by then I thought, I really lost my talent of putting all the words together... (see the answer to Question 3) At one point I even thought about quitting academia because I didn’t want to "spend my whole life writing grant proposals" (a DCC colleague, personal communication, 2018).

But things are getting better now. For my last manuscript it took me literally two days to complete the introduction - and yes, when I sent the manuscript to my supervisors, I found myself happy and cool again.

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

Don't hesitate in reaching out for collaboration.

Having worked with EEG for almost five years, I always have the temptation to move on to something "new". For a while I have been secretly planning a new study using MEG - please don't judge, as an experimental psychologist I know that we should choose the method based on the research question, not let the question follow the method. Therefore, the moment I figured out that my own research question cannot be answered by MEG data, I was really sad and frustrated. Rather than giving up the attempt, I decided to do an "internship" in someone else's project, so that I can still learn the skills. One day I randomly walked into the office of Vitoria Piai. "Do you happen to know anyone who is currently running an MEG study?" I asked. And she replied: "Actually, I am.", which happily surprised me. She offered me to work on her project and it has brought me way more than I expected: I started with pre-processing MEG data and transferring my EEG skills, and now I am even learning about how to model the lesions of stroke patients for source localization!

Working in Donders, we have the best resource of expertise in all the neuroscience subfields . Make use of it and do not hesitate if you think someone can be of help.

  1. What do you wish you would have known when you started your PhD project?

Although there are many people you will be collaborating with, in the end you are the single author of your thesis.

Therefore, be ready for all the responsibilities. Everything is on you.

  1. Do you have any handy PhD project-related tips and tricks to share?

Learn new skills when you have your own data or own research questions (a.k.a, when you really need the skills).

It's not really a trick because I have never managed to do so...

In my first year of PhD, I was very "greedy" in filling up my own toolkit with all the skills: linear mixed effect modeling, Bayesian analysis, psychophysics toolbox... It turned out to be NOT so efficient. I remember that half a day before the lmer workshop, I downloaded R for the first time, taught myself the basics by watching some tutorials, and then went directly to the workshop, trying to understand what's the difference between contrast coding and sum coding... Only one and half year later, I started using lmer for my own analysis. So many times I thought  "hmm this problem looks familiar... but what does this slide mean... who can I ask for help..."

Listen, go to the workshops with your own data and own research questions, ask the colleagues for help when you have a precise question, use your own "filter" to learn what is relevant, what is not.

Anyhow, some (if not most) of those workshops take place only once a year, so you may still run into the problem of not getting the right help at the right point...

  1. What are you looking forward to in life?

For the moment it is finishing my thesis and becoming a doctor.

Then I can “inherit” the Swiss army knife from my dad, which has "Dr. Zheng" engraved - although he is a "real" doctor, I mean, those who work in a hospital. [laugh]