‘Be smart, creative and determined because disappointment is part of the game’

What do you do at a low point in your career, if your self-confidence has taken a knock and your future dream to be a researcher seems to be out of reach? Elsje van Bergen did not think about giving up. ‘I never had a Plan B’, reflects the reading skills researcher and Veni laureate ten years later.

Credits: Willeke Duijvekam

Text: Mariëtte Huisjes, photography: Willeke Duijvekam, makeup: Nikki de Vries

The route which Van Bergen took to her assistant professorship position at the Department of Biological Psychology at VU Amsterdam was far from easy. But her determination kept her on track. ‘Perhaps my indomitable optimism is rooted in my childhood. When I was six, an abscess was found that required my skull to be sawn open.’ It was not certain if, and how, she would survive the operation. But Elsje van Bergen became healthy again, and she learned to read at the AMC's hospital school. ‘I can remember that I found learning to read fantastic. But other children said: just wait, soon you'll find it stupid. Back then, I could not imagine that.’ Her love for learning continued as equally her optimism. ‘Since that operation, I have experienced my life as a gift.’­

See, far too easy

Van Bergen comes from a large family. Her mother is a teacher, and her father owns two furniture businesses. Her parents would have liked her to study mathematics or physics. They thought there would be a demand for a mathematically minded woman. However, those courses did not attract Van Bergen. She chose to study Human Movement Sciences. ‘I secretly posted the application form. I can still remember walking to the letterbox, knowing that my parents would be disappointed.’ Her parents accepted the choice. When their daughter gained high grades, they saw this as proof they were right: see, far too easy. However, Van Bergen felt like a fish in water studying Human Movements Sciences. ‘What attracted me was that human behaviour is the object of the research, but that a lot of calculations are involved as well. For example, you study how somebody catches a ball or skates, and you record that information in biomechanical models. ’­­­­

Who wants a failed PhD candidate?

After she had graduated – bachelor and master cum laude – she started a PhD on bimanual coordination. However, that was far from successful. Looking back, she puts it down to a mismatch between herself, the project and the supervisor. Van Bergen stopped the PhD early. She refers to that as a low point. ‘I received a lot of criticism, and my self-confidence had sunk to below zero. A colleague advised me to become a gymnastics trainer because that was something I already did in my free time. That really hurt. Had I aimed too high with my dream for the future? It was already so difficult to find a PhD position and who would take on a failed PhD candidate?’

Setting up for a postdoc position

Van Bergen got a grip on herself and decided to boldly write to researchers who she admired. She applied for vacancies even though she did not fit the job description. She forced herself to think ahead because she did not have an alternative. ‘I went in search of a subject that was societally relevant, and that would become fundable in the future. And, I specifically sought a supervisor who published a lot so that I could also publish and set myself up properly for a postdoc position.’ My search brought me to Child Development and Education at the University of Amsterdam, simply via an advertisement in the newspaper. She did not have the requested educational studies background. ‘But there were fantastic longitudinal data, and I therefore thought that they could make good use of somebody who liked puzzling with figures.’ That proved to be the case and the new department welcomed her with open arms. Van Bergen soon picked up the new subject and began doing research into predictive indicators for dyslexia.­­­­

Plenty of interest, but no money

Well before she gained her doctorate, she once again prepared for the next step in her career: Van Bergen wanted to go to the United Kingdom for two months “to network” and submitted three grant applications for this. NWO rewarded her with a Rubicon grant to go to Oxford as a postdoc and Oriel College in Oxford gave her a junior research fellowship, including full dining rights. ‘Not unimportant: if you want, they cook for you three times per day so that you can completely dedicate yourself to research.’ Although it looked as if she had acquired a successful postdoc research position as a fellow in a mediaeval college, her grant came to an end again. Both the University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam were interested in her work but had no money. Van Bergen subsequently submitted an application for a Veni grant. Her papers were superb and everybody thought that she would acquire a grant. However, the selection interview did not go well, some misunderstandings arose and she was rejected. Yet Van Bergen once again refused to throw in the towel, and she submitted a letter of objection. A year later she did receive the Veni grant after all.­­­­

Tenured appointment

Her scientific career was developing well when Van Bergen experienced two complicated pregnancies that kept her off work for 16 months and led to a gap in her CV. ‘You can feel sorry for yourself, but you can also think: at least my nausea will disappear, whereas chronic illnesses have no end date. So I simply sat it out and now I am very happy that I am no longer pregnant.’ Although her youngest child is not yet one year old, she has already submitted seven articles to scientific journals as well as two grant applications for new research. At the start of April – Van Bergen is now 37 years old – she received her first tenured appointment as a researcher at VU Amsterdam.­­­­­

Carrying on with unravelling

‘Being smart is not enough to make it as a researcher’, is how Van Bergen summarises her career. ‘And being extremely smart is not enough either.

Having the highest IQ is not enough, it is also about determination and passion

I do not think I have the highest IQ, but I also think other characteristics are important in science: creativity, being conscientious, determination and passion. Disappointments are part of the game and rejection is terrible, but you need to deal with that. Even if it is only because these occur far more often than positive reactions.’ Nevertheless, Van Bergen still thinks that science is a fantastic field to work in. ‘I continue to commit myself to unravelling how genes and the environment jointly determine the learning skills of a child.’­­­­­­

Whoever reads well, reads more

Elsje van Bergen studies how children learn to read and which factors influence this. She chooses to study this from different perspectives: brain research, cognitive sciences, genetics and child development and education. The most important discovery so far is that how well children can read determines how much they read and not vice versa. Whoever reads easily is more inclined to pick up a book. Whoever finds it difficult rather does something else. Everyone seeks an environment that fits his or her DNA.

Nature of Nurture? Twins research

In the Netherlands Twin Register – an initiative from Spinoza laureate Dorret Boomsma and accommodated at the Department of Biological Psychology, VU Amsterdam – twins and multiples have been intensively followed since 1987, often since their birth. Data about their family members have been collected too. A total of 200,000 people participate in the register. The database is important for scientific research because it helps to unravel the influences of genetic disposition and the environment. Elsje van Bergen also did her research into reading skills using the Twin Register. She investigated 6,000 sets of twins and established that identical twins are far more similar to their brother or sister in reading speed tests than non-identical twins. From this, it can be deduced that differences in reading skills can largely be attributed to genetic differences.­­­

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