Veröffentlicht 14. Dezember 2023 von Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Alexandrina Vasilichi

Alexandrina at the Mind Brain Body Symposium 2023 in Berlin. All photos/credits: in courtesy of Alexandrina Vasilichi

Alexandrina from Romania is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany.

Her main interest is in interoception and brain-body interactions. Currently, she investigates the computational mechanisms by which interoceptive signals control affective expectations and affective learning processes.

Alexandrina participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Alexandrina and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

I was the only one in my family to excel at scientific disciplines and maths and to actually enjoy them. I was among the few in my class to be quick to understand and persevere in these disciplines. Thus, throughout my school years, I was consistently told by my teachers and my father that I was meant to go in that direction.

Towards the end of high school, I came across cognitive science and the Sherlock Holmes books. Then I was very interested in becoming a criminal investigator to solve the most gruesome and challenging crimes. I was intrigued to do research, gather evidence, and follow the emerging patterns to the solution.
During my BSc in Psychology and Neuroscience in the UK, I gathered a lot of research experience in various labs and did a lot of maths as an extracurricular. Eventually, by the end of my undergraduate, I became interested in studying belief formation processes in a socio-affective context and how physiological states might shape these. Then I only grew more and more interested in interoception and brain-body interactions and bringing more computational modeling approaches to this field.

Who are your role models?

My father was my first-ever role model. He taught me to read and multiply ahead of schedule. He encouraged me not to be late for school and activities. He made sure I had books to read and often encouraged an adventurous spirit in me. He built an altar-like collection of my and my sister’s intellectual and artistic output. He encouraged us to focus on studying often at the expense of hobbies because doing well in school was the surest way to have a career eventually. My sister and I are really fortunate that despite our father not being supported intellectually at all by his parents, although he was very intelligent since he was very young, he found in him the motivation to be so much better with us in those early years. He is a real avid reader, hard-working, organised, and honest in his work, and this will always be exemplary to me.

During secondary school, my history teacher, Mrs. Spiridonică, was inspiring and admirable. She was very fair and exigent, so it was very rewarding when I did well in her subject and received good grades. Eventually, she welcomed me into her group, which was more intellectually nurturing.

Moreover, I have always thought there was much to learn from geniuses, inventors, and high achievers—people who were fully absorbed by their scientific discipline and questions and slept relatively little. Most of them were dead and males, but I’ve never had difficulty connecting to a role model. The only difficulty for me would arise when they turn out to be cruel to other people or to have primitive attitudes towards female intellectual achievement regardless of their gender. But even then, I try to focus on what connects us and get the best of it. Among contemporary scientists, I find inspiring those with similar qualities, and I appreciate, in particular, those who are humane and professional.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

During my undergraduate, I did a lot of voluntary research assistant work in various labs, did a lot of maths as extracurriculars, and enrolled in maths courses. I knew that research experience, programming skills, and statistical and mathematical ability would be essential to progressing to an MSc, full-time research assistantship, or PhD.

Then I pursued my MSc in Cognitive and Decision Sciences at UCL thanks to the references from my supervisor Prof George Wright from my RA job after my BSc and from Prof Glen Cowen, whose maths course I took during my BSc. Subsequently, I was fortunate to apply for PhD scholarships with Prof Nichola Raihani at UCL. It was the first time I received full support from an academic in my application for a scholarship. I didn’t get a scholarship then but I was fortunate to secure an RA position with Prof Paul Fletcher at Cambridge University. Paul gave me tremendous professional and endless high-quality support in all my PhD applications. Eventually, I received a scholarship to the Max Planck School of Cognition PhD programme in Germany, which exposed me to a highly supportive network and stimulating research environment. Here, I’m doing my PhD at the MPI for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen under the primary supervision of Prof Peter Dayan in collaboration with Prof Micah Allen from Aarhus University. There are several other people (academics and postdocs) who helped me along the way in meaningful ways. I tried to name the very important key ones.

Regarding the challenges I overcame, I self-financed my living costs during my BSc and MSc. As I started my BSc in the UK, my mother helped me financially with her savings which amounted to most of the living costs of my first year of BSc. She also helped me better realise the huge amount of finances needed to complete my degree. I realised the only option was to work many part-time jobs and only invest finances in what was necessary.

Another extremely important one was that as I started my undergraduate, I didn’t know how to differentiate between valuable scientists and those who only had the appearance of value, instead of choosing to work with scientists who’d be beneficial for me to work with. Consequently, in those early years, I often wasn’t compensated for my hard work and was taken for granted by inhumane careerists who only thought about themselves. These would often also discriminate against superficial/protected characteristics like being a female, working-class, and non-native English speaker, as well as disadvantage us when we’d manage to progress on our own.

Over the years, I’ve learned to better identify the scientists who are worth it and choose to work with them. I’ve learned that key characteristics of high-quality scientists are being objective, humane, professional, and real scientists at heart as opposed to politicians or careerists, as well as being truly inclusive by making everyone feel an integral member of their lab and encouraging a healthy dynamic between their lab members regardless of the trainees’ stage.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

In my experience so far, I’ve liked many of the projects I’ve worked on. These were those related to my research interests, presented an opportunity to expand my programming and statistical skills, and advanced my field with new and more rigorous conceptual and computational approaches.
For instance, I like my current project because I’m working with the cardiac physiological signal, an affective learning paradigm, and using computational models to study the relationship between the two. In the future, I will only delve into my field further and expand on it with new questions and methods.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed working with like-minded scientists with whom I can work together to ask new questions in my field and bring in new methods to increase my field’s feasibility to address real-life questions in the socio-affective, cognitive, and clinical domain.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

I felt pride when I graduated with my BSc degree. That’s one of my biggest pride moments because I was at the top of my class with first-class honors. I started from poverty, am first generation academic, and have balanced a huge amount of academic and nonacademic workload while doing my BSc abroad in the UK.
Then there are more general moments when I am proud of how I spend my time. For instance, when I was self-teaching maths in my BSc, I spent 12-15 hours a day for extended periods of time. After some continuous intense practice, I ended up reading chapters from a university Calculus textbook somewhat easily. Then, I am proud of myself when I spend 12-15 hours a day being productive with my research. Overall, I am proud of myself when I invest my time in my career and my scientific and personal growth, thus making it pay off for those who have invested in me so far.

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

Currently, I dedicate most of my time to analysing my data and testing different hypotheses. As I progress, I write insightful summaries and generate insightful plots of my results. Additionally, I keep myself up to date with the literature in my field and read news about major developments in other disciplines. When I have to write more extended pieces, prepare a presentation, or do lots of reading, I like to remain in my home office alone and dedicate all the time required to fulfill these. Then, every several months I travel abroad to spend some in-person time in the lab of my secondary supervisor.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I want my name to be known in my scientific discipline. I want to develop in-depth knowledge of my field, the methods used, and new methods that can be applied to advance the field. I want to generate insightful research programmes.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

Alexandrina in the UK with her Bachelor diploma
Alexandrina with her BSc diploma during her graduation in the UK

I have always been interested in space sciences and the universe, so I often end up spending time asking myself a lot of questions about planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe, which makes me read about these. I think that learning about the universe with its structure and dynamics helps you put things into perspective about our world and the human species as a civilisation.

A curious thing about our species is that we came not long ago, and we already have deeply ingrained the drive and motivation to discover where we came from, where we are heading, as well as to discover our entire surrounding place.

Learning about the universe teaches you principles that seem to apply more generally. For instance, it seems that there often has, if not always, been chaos, violence, and destruction before everything falls into shape before stars, planets, and galaxies are born before the universe organises itself. Chaos often has been a precursor to subsequent structure, harmony, and life.

I hope this is a good indication that we as a civilisation will eventually come together to overcome some of our biggest existential threats, such as climate change or territorial and ideological conflicts. I don’t think we have another choice if we are to withstand the test of time. I am also confident that discrimination based on gender and other superficial characteristics will eventually become a thing of our human civilisation’s past.

One of the books I read recently about space is Contact by Carl Sagan. He wrote a beautiful female scientist character and a really inspiring science fiction story about the interaction between our human civilisation with another much more advanced intelligent civilisation.

I also like to keep in touch with my family, currently learn German, read about various other subjects, and travel to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

My advice is to trust yourself and your abilities. Don’t let anyone undermine your capabilities and achievements or discourage you from pursuing your scientific interests. At the end of the day, all that matters is how much you’ve invested in yourself as a scientist and, as a person, how much closer you’ve come to your career goals. Dedicate yourself fully to developing your statistical and programming skills. Allow yourself to be passionate and resourceful about solving this kind of challenges. Keep up to date with the scientific literature and get to know it well. Then it’s impossible that at some point, you’ll come across worthwhile scientists who will want to collaborate with you and appreciate you for all your knowledge, skillset, and problem-solving abilities regardless of your gender and other characteristics. Surround yourself with a supportive network of like-minded scientists and colleagues who can inspire you to achieve your scientific goals and advise you.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

In the context of interoception and brain-body interactions, it would be doing more scientifically and statistically rigorous research since otherwise, we can’t get answers we can rely upon and advance theory. Then I believe we need better interoception measures to advance socio-affective and computational psychiatry research. Furthermore, I believe that we need an authentic and quantifiable picture of the cognitive and physiological mechanisms and computations underlying brain-body interactions, a clearer understanding of the parameters involved, what they’re responsible for, how and where they emerge, and for what purpose.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

I can highlight some of the things I noticed to be efficient.

Early on, both the school environments and caregivers should create a supportive and inclusive environment where girls are encouraged to discover their passions and guided to pursue them. Early on, girls should be introduced to books that encourage intellectual curiosity and an adventurous spirit. It’s important to avoid laying on their shoulders gendered stereotypical expectations and introduce them to the idea that being skilled, resourceful, and independent is something to be proud of.

Then as women start university, there shouldn’t be any difference in the quality and amount of academic and career mentorship between genders or in the quality and amount of compensation for the work performed. I think women should be encouraged and supported in pursuing their research interests and be mentored on their journey to developing the required skill set.

It’s true that lack of self-awareness is partly responsible. But I think that across both genders, many people who discriminate against women are doing it consciously due to a lack of professional incentive and willingness not to. A solution is for more equal scientific environments and visionary scientists to keep providing exemplary support to and attract highly skilled female scientists. Those insufficient environments will have to improve to be competitive in attracting and retaining female scientists.

Further Information

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.