Jens Foell

5 min read

This week we had a pleasure speaking to Dr. Jens Foell for our interview with scientist series.

IMG_4930cJens Foell studied psychology at the University of Tübingen (Germany) and received his PhD in neuropsychology from Heidelberg University (Germany). His expertise is in experimental clinical and cognitive neuroscience. His PhD study investigated how phantom limbs work in the brain, and how effects of phantom limb pain therapy can be measured using neuroimaging. This work later received the highest-ranking German pain research award. He is currently located at Florida State University, where he studies brain correlates of personality traits pertaining to psychopathy and other topics related to brain and behavior. Topics of his publications include chronic pain treatment, psychopathy, externalizing, body perception, emotion processing, and Borderline Personality Disorder, using a wide range of methods including neuroimaging, electrocortical measurements, virtual reality and augmented reality environments, fear conditioning, and body illusion experiments. He is passionate about sharing science with a wide audience and he co-founded Real Scientists DE, the German-language variant of the popular Real Scientists Twitter account, which makes the work and lives of scientists accessible to a large online audience.

Tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Germany and moved to Florida a couple of years ago to do research. I’ve always been interested in how the mind works, and studying psychology and neuroscience ha been a very rewarding experience in this regard.

What’s your area of research?

I do mostly neuroimaging work, on a handful of different topics. Currently I’m mainly investigating personality traits that have a connection to psychopathy (such as fearfulness and impulsivity), and I am trying to find out if neuroimaging can help us with the understanding or diagnosis of these dispositions.

What do you think about the current publication trend?
There are several interesting and important trends going on right now: there’s a general push towards open data, which is particularly important for neuroimaging (a field for which proper data sharing would not have been possible up until a few years ago, due to the size of many data sets). There’s a stronger focus on replication studies now, and on larger data sets shared between groups. All of this will have lasting changes on the area of neuroimaging, in which smaller studies have been the norm until recently.

I expect these trends to have an overall positive effect, especially on the reliability of neuroimaging studies. But we also need to adapt to these structural changes – for example, smaller labs might have a harder time performing proper neuroimaging studies (unless we change our funding structures accordingly), and journals need to be more open towards replication studies than they are now.

Is publish or perish a valid statement for young scientists?
It’s hard for me to see where this trend is going. I have talked to some researchers during their job searches and gotten the impression that the size of their publication record didn’t have much influence on where they ended up (sometimes that was a good thing and sometimes a bad thing for the researcher in question). Likewise, if you talk to PIs or lab heads, you might get the impression that the topic that an applicant has worked on, or the methods they have used to do so, have more of an influence on the hiring decision than high-profile publications.

What do you think of preprint servers? Do you think they are useful?
They are definitely useful, although I believe their utility varies from field to field and maybe even from study to study. I think that the concept itself makes a lot of sense and fosters constructive discourse in the scientific community. There have been cases of studies being over-interpreted, for example in the popular press, with the results being walked back later, but to me that only means that researchers need to be in touch with science journalists and the public to assist with the understanding of what a preprint means, and which results or interpretations are likely to hold up over time.

Do you think science is communicated well to non-scientists? What are some ways to improve science communication?
This is a big topic that is close to my heart. On the one hand, science communication has never been as accessible as it is today, with several communicators being big names in the public sphere, and with an abundance of material that can be accessed for free, from podcasts to researchers discussing their science in blogs or on Twitter.

However, science communication is still far from where it should be. The picture of science that is projected outwards does not reflect the full range of enthusiasm and diversity that is present in research. That was part of my reason to join the team behind Real Scientists, and to initiate the German-language offshoot Real Scientists DElast year: one goal of these accounts is to show the faces behind the science, to have researchers speak in their own words about their methods and results. I believe that giving science a human face will go a long way towards getting laypeople excited about research, and at the same time it might support the public trust in science that otherwise seems to be waning recently.

As we know, there are more PhD’s graduating every year as compared to available tenure track positions. Do you think there is way to improve this?
In theory, I’m perfectly fine with a situation in which there are many more PhD’s than there are tenure-track (teaching) positions, so long as there are other opportunities to work at an PhD level. Not every PhD candidate has the talent or motivation to be a tenured lab head. What we should focus on is the creation of other positions that would be attractive to recent PhD’s, such as research professor, staff scientist, science librarian, or science diplomat positions. At the same time, there should be a solid exchange between academia and industry, to provide opportunities to PhD’s that are motivated to leave academia. All of these things already exist, and there is some online support for researchers leaving the field, but these efforts need to be more widespread in order to competently address the discrepancy between the number of graduates and available positions.

What are alternative career options for young scientists apart from applying for tenure track positions?
Apart from the ones listed above, I would very much love to see more scientists in the school system. I think that a strong science education should start at high school age at the latest, and it would be great to have PhD-level scientists teach the scientific method and related topics to school audiences across the world.

Apart from science, what do you enjoy doing the most?
I sincerely do enjoy science and science communication (even in my leisure time I read more non-fiction that fiction), but most of all I love spending time with my family. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to instill the same interest in science in my little daughter, but at least I will do my best to explain to her that the world is a fascinating place, and that studying it is worthwhile.

What do you think is a recent scientific invention which has changed the way we do science now?
In my area, the way science is done changes all the time. Magnetic field strengths for MRIs are getting stronger, data processing is getting easier, and I’m keeping a curious eye on the recent development of a potentially revolutionary room-temperature MEG system. So it’s very hard to pinpoint one invention – I think the methods of science are in constant flux, which is part of the reason why it is a fascinating field to work in.


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