Growing up in science

I participated in the fantastic Growing Up In Science series, founded at NYU, in which scientists tell their personal stories. It was great, as well as a bit terrifying, to tell my story and discuss with those who joined the session live. Always wanted to know about my career and life paths?

Official story

Anne Urai received her undergraduate degree in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy at University College Utrecht in 2010, followed by a masters in brain and mind sciences at University College London and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. She then pursued her doctoral research with Tobias Donner at the Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf and University of Amsterdam, investigating how our previous choices bias the way we interpret later information, and how this process is affected by the confidence in our decisions. Her PhD was awarded the NVP brain and cognition thesis prize, specifically for its combination of interdisciplinary methodology and open science approaches. As a postdoctoral fellow in Anne Churchland’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor in New York, she studied the neurophysiology of decision-making using high-density neural recordings in the mouse brain. During this time she was a core member of the International Brain Laboratory, working with a global team of systems and computational neuroscientists to assess the reproducibility of systems neuroscience. She joined Leiden University in The Netherlands as an Assistant Professor in 2020, and was awarded tenure in 2022. Anne Urai’s research focuses on the neural basis of decision-making across mammalian species, and the interaction between learning and perception. A current focus of her work, funded by an NWO Veni grant, is on changes in neural and behavioral noise across the lifespan.

Unofficial story

Anne had a careless childhood, was good at school, but could never quite decide on her passions: she dropped high-school physics and chemistry in a streak of rebelliousness, only to realize her mistake a year later and catch up over the summer break. In her first semester at university, she randomly signed up for several interesting-sounding courses and got into cognitive neuroscience and philosophy. She loved both of them, deciding on the spot that she’d solve all of psychology by studying the brain. Anne spent her exchange semester travelling and eating her way through China, and another year working soul-crushing sales jobs, herding sheep in France and ultimately following her boyfriend to backpack through Asia. In a hot Moroccan internet cafe, she read that someone would pay her to live and study in London and Paris for two years, which seemed too good to true.

During her masters, Anne pursued her fascination for consciousness research (usually reserved for retiring professors) which mostly involved staring at EEG wiggles in windowless rooms. As a friendly collaborator was fixing her atrocious Matlab code, he off-handedly mentioned that Tobias Donner had just started a lab in Amsterdam – conveniently close to the city where said boyfriend had just started a new job. With her heart racing she approached Tobias at a meeting, didn’t faint, applied for a fellowship, and started her PhD in his group.

Having made most of her MSc thesis figures in Excel, she suffered serious imposter syndrome, but discovered she actually quite liked the technical and programming parts of the job. She passed through a serious crisis halfway through the PhD: her initial proposal turned out to be severely underpowered, psychology’s replication crisis was in full swing, her advisor’s lab had moved to another country, and she hadn’t published a single paper. Her advisor’s gentle persistence, many yoga classes and an adopted cat helped her follow through, and Anne decided she’d give postdoc life a chance. After getting stuck in a snowstorm when interviewing at CSHL, she accepted the offer to join the Churchland lab and then got married, finished and defended her PhD within a frantic 6-months.

Coming from a background in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, it was both frightening and exhilerating to work with ‘real’ neuroscientists. Anne had to learn soldering, surgery and bluffing her way through genetics. She loved being a part of the (then early-stage) International Brain Lab, but started feeling terribly homesick after 1.5 years on Long Island. Just as she prepared to spend the summer doing data analysis in NYC, Covid-19 hit. Bored at home in lockdown, Anne opened a long-forgotten ‘Jobs’ email folder and saw a vacancy for a combined psychology teaching and research position in The Netherlands. Within short succession she then found out she was pregnant, she got the job, and the Churchland lab would be moving to California. Choosing her rainy, flat home country over sunshine, she hurried to finish experiments and returned home just in time for maternity leave.

So far, Anne has survived her first year of sleep-deprived parenthood and her assistant professorship, which was turned into a tenured position by happenstance (i.e. union negotiations). While getting settled into faculty life, she regularly experiences existential dread and wonders if writing scientific papers is what she should be doing for the next 35 years. Since her postdoc in the US she’s increasingly concerned about the climate crisis, spending her evenings thinking about decarbonizing academia and worrying about the future.

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