The “Advocating for Science” symposium and workshop is taking place at MIT September 16-17, 2016, to enable junior scientists to advocate for science. The purpose of the meeting is to give an opportunity to those with a passion for advocating for science to develop their advocacy skills, meet like-minded junior scientists and develop focused efforts together to effect positive change.
To try to extend this meeting beyond the Boston area, we recently put out an application call for travel scholarships for attendees from further afield. Following interviews with our Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute Travel Award Recipient, Alex Erwin, and Advocating for Science Travel recipients Holly Hamilton, Katherine Simeon, Adriana Bankston, Tess Eidem, and Sridhar Vedachalam, here is our final interview with Elisa van der Plas:
Tell us a little about your career path so far and what you are currently working on.
I am currently a graduate student in Brain and Cognitive Science at the University of Amsterdam, with several ongoing research projects with labs at the University of Oxford and at Donders Institute of Brain, Behaviour and Cognition in Nijmegen. My research uses computational modelling and imaging techniques to investigate the neuronal fundaments of social decision-making, like moral decision-making and empathy-based attention reorientation.
My obsession with developing research ideas on interdisciplinary boundaries originally started in Costa Rica, where I minored in biology at the capital’s university. The intensive program combined field trips in conservation areas (see picture) and governmental debates to experience the country’s radical environmental policy from both an administrative and academic perspective. This enabled my consideration of sustainability as being more than just the intrinsic value of nature, and helped biologists to inform authorities about the most effective ways to preserve biodiversity. To play a part in dealing with one of Costa Rica’s main societal problem, I volunteered as a motivational speaker in a rehabilitation center. During these conversations I got intrigued by the positive effects communication could have on promoting conscious decision-making, an objective that soon turned into the main driving-factor of my political ambitions.
Upon returning from Costa Rica I discovered that Dutch environmental policy-making was not as innovative as I expected it to be. The Netherlands has much higher greenhouse gas emissions than our neighboring European countries and we can be surprisingly conservative when it comes to technical innovations to resolve such problems. I realized that these issues required not only the disclosure of factual information, but also a strong international communication with more progressive countries. As an active member of both the local and national Young Greens (see picture), I try to fulfill that role. The ambitions of my party go beyond sustainability, and we try to make Dutch and European citizens also aware of gender inequality, the need for financial transparency, and the positive effect civilization has on reducing terrorism and violence.
How did you get interested in advocacy work/science policy?
The main finding of a study that I conducted at the University of Oxford showed that even social decisions start with an innate egocentric tendency. These findings emphasize how much implicit attention-shifts towards rewarding cues affect our daily behavior: a tendency that can be overcome by actively overthinking the state in which others are (e.g. actively making an attention-shift from the self to the other). Even though I aim to investigate these decisions at a very fundamental level, I am aware of the societal implications such attentional shifts can have on triggering out-group empathy. Likewise, improving society with fresh and effective changes often requires some courage to also look outside the scope of one’s own field. For example, technical theories like Bayes theorem might make predictions about what at a more implementation level might cause a societal issue: a simple solution might remain unnoticed, until someone notices the association. The important implications such research has for human society, make it crucial to communicate main findings beyond academia. This realization made me extremely eager to take on the role of communicating the technical advances obtained in academia to a broader public.
What experiences have you had in policy so far and how have they shaped/changed your scientific interests/aspirations?
With the ambition to argue for a society which stimulates a rational mind-set and consideration for others, I try to make students aware of our everyday habits that can be harmful to our environment. By proposing ways to make small, but significant changes to improve live circumstances of those that are spatially and temporarily distant from us, I hope to trigger a more open-minded lifestyle. For example, I have organized vegan dinners to promote conscious consumer’s behavior, a mosque-visit to trigger out-group sympathizing and a lavatory action against stereotyping to discourage gender inequality (see picture).
What are your future goals?
My objective is to leave our future generations a policy that is more informed by knowledge obtained in academia though bridging the isolation from which both fields currently work. Especially inter- and intradisciplinary transparency, that can be obtained by fluent communication, is an essential aspect of such an academic environment. Furthermore, I aim to promote reliable research of which the results are consistent beyond laboratory-cubicles, in order to efficiently take advantage of the technical innovations to provide effective interventions at societal level.
What do you hope to get out of coming to the meeting in Boston?
Networking with the other like-minded young scientist during the weekend will complete my view about the essential considerations positively changing science requires. Improving my ‘advocating for science’ communication skills during the workshops will help me to effectively describe the importance of science in grant applications, and initiate research that is needed to understand the societal dilemmas politicians have to cope with every day.