Neuroscience, Emotions, Work Life Balance: An Interview With Psychologist Dr. Nieves Fuentes-Sánchez An Interview with Dr Ruxandra Chira: Peek into the World of Pharmacy and Analytical Chemistry Exploiting the Tumour Microenvironment to Fight Breast Cancer Embark on an Adventure: Let’s Explore New Spaces on the Molecular Level

Images © Nikolaus Urban // WiRe

In the series “33 questions” we introduce, in no particular order, our WiRe Fellows who are currently working on a research project here at the University of Münster. Why 33? Well, if we think of the rush hour of life, it is kind of the age that lies in its middle. And we also like the number😉.

In today’s episode we are speaking with Dr. Nieves Fuentes-Sánchez, psychologist and passionate lover of emotions.

1. What motivated you to work in the field of neuroscience of emotions?

We are emotional beings. Emotions drive us to act, and at other times they stop us. During my degree, I became interested in understanding this psychological process, its neurophysiological correlates, and its relationship with other related processes such as cognition. That’s why I decided to start collaborating with a research group, where later I did my doctoral thesis.

During all these years I have learnt that emotions are essential for our lives and, therefore, understanding this psychological process is essential to the comprehension of normal and pathological behaviour.

2. Describe your daily work in three words.

Thinking, Reading and Writing.

3. Describe your research topic in three words.

Emotions, Psychophysiology and Brain.

4. A good neuroscientist needs…?

Dr Nieves Fuentes Sanchez in her lab at the University of Münster.

For me, a good neuroscientist needs to be patient and resilient. The scientific career is slow, and rewards often come after a long time. Additionally, it is important to be curious, meticulous and, of course, it is important you enjoy certain tasks such as reading and writing.

5. What is the best experience you have had as a scientist / researcher?

I have had many good experiences as a researcher. One of the most beautiful experiences was defending my doctoral thesis after four years working a lot. Another good experience is related to my stay in Münster. Without doubt, it is a nice experience that is allowing me to learn many things in a new environment.

6. What was your biggest research disaster?

Luckily, I haven’t had a huge research disaster. I was very afraid that the results of my thesis would not be significant (the fear of the p-value) because I had worked hard on the project. Fortunately, the results were very interesting. Additionally, that fear led me to learn that non-significant results are also important for the advancement of science.

The pupil can be seen from the control room in this computer. This program allows to start recording the signal in the magnetoencephalography, calibrate it and validate it.
This is the computer to record the brain activity. In this screen we can see that the head localization is correct, and everything is OK to start the recording. 

7. Which (historical) important scientist would you like to have dinner with? What would you ask?

I would have dinner with Jaak Panksepp because I have read a lot of his research within affective neuroscience (he is said to be the father of affective neuroscience). Jaak Panksepp discovered that there are seven neurobiological networks similar between species and said some interesting things such as rats laugh. At that dinner, I would ask him a little more about his theory and, additionally, I would ask him about his path as a researcher because I read in an interview that he had many people opposed to his ideas.

8. If time and money were no object: Which research project would you like to do?

I would like to continue investigating emotional processing using different techniques (brain and peripheral physiological measures) not only in healthy people but also in people with psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, or people with dementia.

9. What is your favorite research discipline other than your own?

Clinical psychology. It would be great if in the future I could combine affective neuroscience with clinical psychology.

10. What do you consider the greatest achievement in the history of science / your field?

In my opinion, one of the most important achievements within psychology has related to beginning to understand behaviour and the brain (we still have a lot to know). We now know a great deal about normal and pathological behaviour and this allows us to provide much more effective treatments. This increase in knowledge has come about thanks to the development of many tools such as the functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), magnetoencephalography or the development of questionnaires.

11. Which experience in the world of science disappointed you most?

I would say that the most disappointing experience is related to the process of grant applications. In many cases the process is very slow (you can spend 9 months waiting for a grant resolution!) and, additionally, the evaluation process relies on things that, in most cases, don’t depend on your value as a researcher. This makes the process quite difficult and tiring.

12. How did you survive your PhD time?

I am not sure how I survived! I’m just kidding! Even though the PhD time has many bad times, I think that the good ones have been more important to me. In the bad times I’ve done things that make me feel good, such as going to nature or spending time with my family or friends. I think this has been the best therapy over those years and, of course, currently as a postdoctoral researcher.

13. What direct or indirect relevance does your research have for society?

After the task in the MEG, participants have to evaluate the music.  

The aim of my research is to understand emotional processing. Emotions and their regulation are essential to our everyday life. It is known that problems in emotional reactivity and regulation (emotion dysregulation) are related to psychological problems, such as depression or anxiety. Therefore, understanding this psychological process could allow us a better understanding of psychopathology and, as a consequence, help us to consider new treatments to psychological problems.

14. How did you imagine the life of a scientist / researcher when you were a high school student?

I related scientists with serious people that work in a laboratory using difficult equipment (and, obviously, in white coat).

15. Is it actually different? In what way?

My idea is completely different now. I have learnt that there are many types of scientists, depending on the field. For example, there are scientists that do not wear a white coat or use difficult equipment and are equally researchers. Furthermore, I have realised that a scientist spends many hours thinking, reading and writing (more than I thought!). Lastly, not necessarily a scientist is a freak, isolated or serious person.

16. What do you like most about the “lifestyle” of a scientist? And what least of it?

I like many things about the researcher’s life. I really appreciate being able to materialise my own ideas (it is very nice to have a research question and to be able to solve it). Furthermore, this work allows me to think a lot and promotes my creativity (for me, it’s fun to spend time writing or thinking about a new design). Lastly, I love travelling and being a researcher allows me to meet new countries and cities (for example, thanks to the WiRe fellowship I’m getting to know Münster and other German cities).

Despite all the good things, there are some things that I don’t like so much. One of them is the instability and the difficulty to obtain a grant, especially during the postdoc period.

17. Do you think your career would have evolved differently if you were a man?

Brain stimulation machine. The picture shows the machine with the sensors connected.

For now, I think that my career wouldn’t have been different if I were a man. I consider that the difference could appear later, if I decided to have children, for example.

18. If you were the research minister of Germany, what would you do to improve the situation of women in science?

I would increase the number of postdoc positions and I would facilitate the access of women to those job positions. Additionally, I would increase the number of women in higher positions.

19. How would you explain your research area and topic to a child?

We have emotions when we are dealing with things that are relevant to us. For example, if you fail an important exam, you’ll probably feel sadness. By contrast, if you see your best friend after the summer, you’ll probably feel happiness. Those emotions allow us to react accordingly to the situation.

When we feel an emotion, we have different thoughts (we can think “this is disgusting!” when we eat something bad), but also we have changes in our body and brain. For example, if I’m afraid of cockroaches and I see one in my room, I’m likely to feel an increase in my heart rate, I’ll sweat more, and my breathing will increase. Understanding what emotions are, the individual differences in the emotional processing (for example, do we feel emotions similarly independently of age or gender?) or how we regulate emotions is essential to understand our behaviour. Additionally, if we understand this psychological process, we will be able to develop more effective psychological therapies and, therefore, we will be more effective in helping those people who need our help as psychologists.

20. What is the biggest challenge for you when it comes to balancing family and career?

In order to correctly place the sensors, the head of each participant must be measured. This allows for accurate stimulation of specific areas of the brain – in present case: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

I live far away from my family and some of my friends. I have to plan my time and work very well to be able to visit them regularly.

21. How do you master this / these challenge(s)?

Basically, organising time very well and trying to be very productive when I am working. Then, during the weekends, I don’t usually work, so I can share time with my family and friends.

22. How often do you as a friend / partner / mother / daughter feel guilty when you have to meet a deadline – again?

I don’t usually feel guilty. I try to work during my working hours and, therefore, I normally have my weekends or rest hours free. In case I need to work during the weekend (in special cases) I don’t feel guilty because I would be doing something necessary for my work.

23. How did you imagine your future as a child? What profession did you want to pursue?

When I was a child, I wanted to be many things. I remember once when I was a little girl and a notary came to my grandfather’s house. He only had to sign one piece of paper, and the notary charged a lot. At that time, I wanted to be a notary. It was during my adolescence that I noticed that I wanted to be a psychologist 🙂

24. How do you keep your head clear when you are stressed?

When I’m stressed, I like listening to music, hiking, and spending time with friends.

25. What is your favorite German word?

Schätzchen.

26. What makes you most happy about the world?

Seeing my family and friends in good health, spending time with them and laughing a lot, and being free to do what I want to do at any given moment.

27. What or who inspired you to become a psychologist?

Adjusting the machine to perform brain stimulation. Starting the stimulation.

When I was a teenager, I was interested in understanding human behaviour and brain functioning. Before finalising high school, I had the subject of Psychology. At that moment, I realised that I wanted to be a psychologist. I had some problems accessing the degree, but after a lot of persistence I got it.

28. What worries you most about the world?

The existence of some illnesses.

29. Your favourite TV series?

I like How I Met Your Mother. This TV series allows me to disconnect and laugh on tired days. Additionally, I think it’s nice to see the friendship between them and how their lives are changing with time.

30. Which hobby have you given up for a life in academia?

I stopped painting when I started to study psychology.

31. If you could travel in time: in which epoch and at which discovery or event would you have liked to have been there?

I have always been interested in the Renaissance. During that epoch great inventions were developed and, in general, culture was given great importance.

32. What is your favourite place to relax from research during the pandemic?

I used to go to the beach for a walk and relax. I am lucky that in Castellón (Spain) there are beautiful and little known beaches.

33. What is your favourite place in Münster?

I love many places in Münster. I would choose all those that have to do with nature such as Aasee park, Schlosspark, etc., but also downtown.

I was surprised with the great resources offered by the university. Additionally, I like a lot the Institute where I’m working. There are many useful resources for researching.