In the final days August of 2018, I embarked on a journey which was to become one of the most exciting, as well as most challenging experiences of my Ph.D. so far. I packed up my life in London completely to move to Leipzig, Germany, to spend the rest of the year as a Guest Researcher at the Neurology Department of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, where I would be hosted by the outstanding OMEGA lab.
How did I get to this remarkable and colourful institute? I was honoured by being presented with the Berlin MindBrainBody Institute’s Young Scientist Award in the Spring of 2019. In order to apply for this award, one must submit a project proposal which fits in with the research of the institute. The winner of the MBB Young Scientist Award gets the extraordinary opportunity to join either the Berlin MindBrainBody Institute, or the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences for a fully funded research stay, while being supported in carrying out the proposed project.
In my (from hindsight I can say very ambitious!) project, I set out to investigate the way collective narcissists respond to group-based exclusion using fMRI. This project was going to be my first big fMRI project, which made the preparations all the more exciting! Since fMRI data collection is time-consuming, I made sure to prepare as much as possible (stimuli, ethics proposal, etc.) before arriving to Leipzig.
I spent the majority of my first month learning how to use the Siemens Prisma 3T scanner, on which I was to complete my project, and assisting on other projects running on this scanner. Learning as much as possible in a relatively short amount of time, from the mechanics of the scanner to the relevant safety procedures, I was awarded a scanning license in October, allowing me to operate the scanner in the evening hours and the weekends as well, not only during the times when the technical assistants are at the institute. Finally, almost one year after submitting the original research proposal, I was ready to begin data collection! This part of the project also took roughly one month to complete, aiming for a sample size of 60 participants. Despite the pre-conception that too much time in the scanner environment takes away its charm, I was just as excited on my final day of scanning as I was on my first day of training!
Although testing participants was extremely tiring due to the long hours by the scanner, the time period afterwards introduced me to a whole new type of cognitive exhaustion. Trying to figure out the pre-processing of the fMRI data, the first- and group-level analyses, various coding languages, or how to create masks was an overwhelming learning curve, often characterized by a lot of frustration. On the other hand, this also meant that even the smallest achievements felt like the greatest victories during this process, and slowly I did manage to successfully tackle the challenges!
And this is where I am currently in my progress of learning fMRI, conducting my first fMRI project, and moving to a whole new research institute to carry out my research. Although it feels like I still have a lot to do, and an alarmingly little amount of time, I cannot even try to quantify how much I have learned in this very short time I spent here! I cannot express how grateful I am to all the wonderful people who helped through my academic journey here, helping me get to where I am with this project now; to the people who helped me tackle the challenges posed by the unexpectedly strict set of rules one has to face when trying to settle down in Germany; and, most of all, the all the unique and magnificent people I met here and can call my friends, who made sure that I will leave Leipzig with unforgettable memories!