Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, ArtLab Foyer
Growing up in Academia with Yee Lee Shing
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Academia is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
Each event features an open conversation (interview) with a different faculty member, representing the broad spectrum of academic life. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that universally inform the profession, but that too often remain unspoken. These events will be hosted and presented by Lucia Melloni (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics).
On Monday, February 17th, Growing Up in Academia features Prof. Dr. Yee Lee Shing, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Goethe University's Institute of Psychology
The official CV
Yee Lee Shing is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at Goethe University Frankfurt, where she is directing the Lifespan Cognitive and Brain Development (LISCO) lab. She is also a member of the IDeA research center of the DIPF (Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education). Yee Lee studied psychology in the US before moving to Germany to pursue her graduate studies at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (MPIB) in Berlin, where she also obtained her PhD from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in 2008. After some years as a postdoctoral researcher and subsequently a project leader at the MPIB, she took up a lectureship at the University of Stirling, Scotland in 2015. She returned to Germany since 2018 after accepting her current position at Goethe University Frankfurt. Research in her lab focuses on the development of cognitive and neural functioning across the human lifespan, with an emphasis on episodic memory.
The Unofficial CV
Yee Lee grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in a family of Chinese descendent. Her dad ran a small cleaning service business and her mom was a primary school music teacher. Both of them did not have the opportunity to attend university but worked their fingers to the bone to send their three children to universities at overseas, with the firm belief that having a university degree is the way to secure a good job. The educational system in Malaysia is highly achievement oriented, and for most of the time Yee Lee studied in order to obtain a good grade. This view of academic achievement is not at all intellectual but served her well enough throughout her education until the PhD time.
When she was 19, Yee Lee rebelled against her parents’ wish for her to study engineering or accountancy in Australia and took a plane off to Omaha, Nebraska to study psychology. This was based on the vague idea that she was (and still is) interested in how people become who they are. And why on earth Omaha? Simply because that was one of the two US universities that offered her an in-state tuition scholarship (the other one was Hawaii!) and was affordable. The university had a small psychology department but it was there that Yee Lee cut her teeth in psychological research, thanks to two young faculty members who were willing to take her in as a research volunteer. Through this experience, her (so far) lifelong interest in memory development was seeded. After a short stint in studying educational psychology for her master, she decided that she wanted to get back to developmental psychology. Once again without the slightest idea about the place she was moving to, she took up an offer to do a PhD in Berlin at the Center for Lifespan Psychology, Max Planck for Human Development (MPIB), under the supervision of Shu-Chen Li and Ulman Lindenberger.
During the PhD time, Yee Lee started to develop an understanding of intellectual curiosity and freedom. Not being closely instructed on what to spend time on and whether one is right (in some absolute sense) is somewhat obscuring and at the same time liberating. The research infrastructure and the amazing colleagues at the MPIB enabled her to delve into experimental approaches to study cognitive development, in combination with multivariate, longitudinal, as well as neuroimaging methodologies. After finishing the PhD, Ulman Lindenberger offered her to stay on as a project leader with quite some freedom to steer her research directions. During those 5-6 years she supervised three doctoral students, who all received an Otto Hahn Medal from the MPI for outstanding dissertation. Working with these motivated and talented students (knowing that she never was one) and seeing them grow is one of the most rewarding experience of her time at the MPIB.
In 2014, with the birth of her second child, Yee Lee decided that it was time to open a new chapter of her life, knowing that the position at the MPIB will at some point end. She went to Stirling, Scotland for a lecturer position interview and decided that the family shall move there (once again, somewhere she has no idea of). Her husband, a comic artist, was phenomenally supportive, and took care of the move and the children whenever Yee Lee was busy/away for her job. She spent lots of time in the first year of the lectureship writing grants, which all didn’t get funded. But in hindsight it was time well spent on brainstorming where her research directions could take (in a practical way outside of the bubble of the MPI) and discussing ideas with the colleagues there. She met Lars Muckli who is the fMRI director at the Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, University of Glasgow, and got introduced to the prediction literature. This got her thinking about how predictive processing, prior knowledge, and episodic memory may interact in the human brain, and the age differences therein. This turned into an ERC Starting Grant proposal, which to her astonishment, got funded. Meanwhile, the Brexit havoc brought some worries in her, such that when the professorship offer from Frankfurt came, it seemed like a logical (yet emotional) move to uproot the family once again back to Europe.
Now at the beginning of her third year as a professor, Yee Lee feels somewhat settled in and begins to develop an insight of what it means to be a university professor in Germany. Her favourite time at work is when she sits with her lab members designing experiments and looking at data (and also just hanging out), but more and more she needs to juggle time for teaching and departmental/university obligations (known and unknown ones). Looking back, she realizes that many good things came from serendipity, finding people who are kind to share and think alike, and being open to new experiences. With this prior, she is curious what the future may bring.