Monday 04.11.2019 17:00 — 19:00
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, ArtLab Foyer

Growing Up in Academia with Melissa Vo

Melissa as a kid.

Present-day Melissa.

What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Science 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”.

At each event, we will have an open conversation (interview) with one faculty member representing science in its broad spectrum. 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 are universal undercurrents of working in academia but that too often remain unspoken.

On Monday, November 4th, the interview partner is Prof. Dr. Melissa Vo, Head of the Group "Allgemeine Psychologie I" and of "Scene Grammar Lab", Goethe-University, Frankfurt

There is no registration required. We will be pleased to welcoming you at this event.

The Official CV

Melissa Le-Hoa Võ is currently a professor for Cognitive Psychology at the Goethe University Frankfurt. In addition, she is affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Center for Neurosciences and the Brain Imaging Center of the Goethe University, and currently serves as the Vice Dean of the Department. Melissa started studying Psychology in the year 2000 at one of the smallest Psych Departments in Germany, the University of Eichstätt, before moving on to get her diploma at one of the largest ones, the Free University of Berlin. In 2009 she received her PhD from the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. She then moved on to perform postdoctoral work, first with John Henderson at the University of Edinburgh, followed by almost 5 years of work with Jeremy Wolfe at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Võ’s work has been supported by numerous grants and fellowships, including grants from the NIH and the DFG Emmy Noether program. In 2014, Melissa Võ moved back to Germany where as freshly appointed Full Professor for Cognitive Psychology she set up the Scene Grammar Lab at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Melissa’s core research interests include top-down guidance in scene search, neural representation and development of scene knowledge, as well as action-perception interactions in real-world scenarios.

The Unofficial CV

As long as she can remember, Melissa wanted to become an astronaut, but when the end of high school neared and Melissa started looking into the study contents of Astrophysics, she realized that she would rather study something more “alive”. So she decided to try Psychology, knowing that she would not want to become a shrink, but rather earn loads of money at McKinsey.


That idea went overboard quickly when she started doing experimental work in her 2ndsemester, first as part of a seminar (EXPRA, still one of her favorites to this day), and then in a succession of research internships and RA jobs. After receiving her “Vordiplom” from the small, tranquil, but beautiful University of Eichstätt, Melissa took a semester off to first do a research internship at the MPI in Munich, followed by a 5-month research stint at Columbia University in NYC. The latter wasn’t motivated as much by doing research at Columbia University as by the longing to live and work in a city like NYC for a while. She still has very vivid memories of the small, windowless room with only a small mattress that she shared with a Vietnamese childhood friend of hers, living on cheap bagels and cream cheese while spending the days up on campus and the nights in jazz bars either in Harlem or the lower East Side. After this truly intense experience, Melissa was still not convinced that a career in science would be for her. So after moving to Berlin for her diploma, she decided to do another internship, this time at the DLR, the German Aerospace Center, in Hamburg, where she was in charge of preparing stress tests that would be administered during parable flights (sadly she couldn’t stay long enough to volunteer as a zero gravity RA) as well as constructing new assessment centers for ongoing pilot candidates. While interning, she took part in one of the assessment centers herself just for fun, and by chance somehow managed to pass all tests, and so was offered a pilot training stipend from the DLR to pave the way to becoming a pilot. For a week, she went back and forth about the offer, since becoming a pilot would at least be closer to the initial idea of becoming an astronaut than staying at the University, but in the end the job of a pilot – though of course appealing - seemed to leave little room for creativity and flexibility, so Melissa decided to continue her studies in Cognitive Psychology after all. After receiving her diploma from the Free University of Berlin, Melissa told her long-standing PI that she wanted to change her field of research, getting away from pure language processing to… something else (with no clear idea what that would be). Her urge for a change of scenery and a chance to think about what to do next became so strong that she took off on a 6-month backpacking trip that took her from India, via Singapore and Malaysia to Australia, New Zealand and the Fijis before touring the US for a while at the end of trip. Needless to say, this was one of the best decisions Melissa made, not only because had she realized that despite all the great adventures she missed doing research, but also because she was now full of fresh ideas and energy to embark on a PhD.

Upon her return to Germany, she was offered a PhD position in Munich to which she had applied before leaving on on trip. The motivation for this particular PhD lay more in the fact that her boyfriend at the time was living near Munich than in the PhD topic (attention and perception) itself. After a first year of fun but intense work on attention allocations during scene perception, Melissa was told that there were no more funds for her project and that her PhD advisor was leaving the University. So the 2ndand last year of her PhD was spent working (and often sleeping) in the lab. By coincidence she ended up sitting next to John Henderson – one of the leading figures in scene perception research at that time - at a conference dinner that year, who - after showing him some of her 3D rendered scene stimuli on her iPod (back when these were a thing) - offered Melissa a one-year PostDoc position in his lab in Edinburgh. She commuted back and forth between Munich (where her new boyfriend and now husband Daniel was doing his PostDoc), and Edinburgh, exploring distilleries and refining her taste for good old Scotch. Thanks to a DFG grant that allowed Melissa to join Jeremy Wolfe’s lab at Harvard Medical School and a PostDoc offer for Daniel to join MIT, they both moved to Boston, where she spent 5 years (and Daniel 7) doing research, exploring ice climbing, and loving the annual blizzards that buried the town in snow. Being at Harvard was a truly intimidating experience, surrounded by such a conglomeration of brilliant people. Jeremy’s lab was and still is crazily productive, but at the same time it had a family-style atmosphere and became a second home to Melissa. If it hadn’t been for Jeremy’s profound mentorship and amazing support, Melissa wouldn’t have even considered becoming a professor. Applying for jobs and grants from a place like Harvard, of course, helped upping the chances for success. So when Melissa heard that she had received the DFG Emmy Noether grant to set up her own junior research group, she was already speechless. And when shortly after that she received the job offer for a full professorship back home in Germany, she could hardly believe her luck. So she moved to Frankfurt and set up the Scene Grammar Lab together with her first generation of bright and enthusiastic PhD students, commuting back and forth across the Atlantic for another 2 years, while Daniel remained at MIT. When Daniel received a job offer from the University of Trento, the transatlantic commutes turned into transalpine commutes, which came to a halt when little Gioia was born and Melissa was able to take more than a year of maternity leave thanks to the lab, her PhDs and PostDocs picking up the slack. Now she works in Frankfurt during the week, enjoying being back with her lab, and then spends long weekends with her family in Italy. Every once in a while she thinks that becoming a pilot would still be a good idea, at least for the ease of commuting to work.