Max-Planck-Institut für empirische Ästhetik, ArtLab Foyer
Growing Up in Science with Christian Fiebach
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, December 10th, the interview partner is Prof. Christian Fiebach, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt.
The Official CV
Christian Fiebach is a Professor of Neurocognitive Psychology at the Department of Psychology at Goethe University Frankfurt. He is also affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Center for Neurosciences and the Brain Imaging Center of Goethe University, and currently serves as the Secretary of the German Psychological Society. Christian studied psychology and then conducted his graduate studies at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, where he also obtained his PhD from the University of Leipzig. After a first postdoctoral position at the MPI, he joined the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and Department of Psychology at UC Berkeley as a postdoctoral research fellow. Returning to Germany, he started a DFG funded Emmy Noether junior research group at the University of Heidelberg, where he became Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2009, before accepting his current position in 2010. Christian’s research focuses on brain mechanisms underlying higher cognitive functions such as cognitive stability and flexibility, language processing, and intelligence.
The Unofficial CV
The final years of Christian’s high school education were characterized by fundamental uncertainties about his future plans in life. This was, however, met by very clear expectations concerning a career in business administration or economics. After almost two years of civil service (which were the alternative to obligatory military service in Germany at that time), he decided quite spontaneously to study psychology. (It can be suspected that this decision would not be easy to replicate.) During the first years of his studies (which by the way he started in Landau/Pfalz, a beautiful wine region with many local wine festivals), his girlfriend (and now wife) was already firmly dedicated to become a clinical neuropsychologist, while Christian basically failed to understand her fascination with the brain. Only after a series of internships in fields like organizational psychology (consulting), he noticed his passion for science. It took him another year or two and a Diploma thesis to understand that theoretical models of cognitive processes that ignore their grounding in the biological substrate made no sense to him. He accepted an offer to conduct his PhD work at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig in the lab of Angela Friederici, and this was like entering an entirely new dimension of academia. Brain imaging with fMRI was just a few years old, and Christian was exposed to an entire Institute full of researchers interested in the same methods and similar topics. The promise of studying cognition in relation to the brain seemed to fulfill. After some failed attempts to dissociate tonotopically organized neural representations in Heschl’s gyrus with MEG, he turned to his final PhD topic, focusing on the role of working memory in sentence processing.
After another 1.5 years as postdoctoral research at the MPI, Christian moved to UC Berkeley to work with Mark D’Esposito at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, to focus his work more on working memory and frontal lobe processes. (See details about Berkeley’s 4T MR scanner in the Unofficial CV of previous speaker Leon Deouell …) Life in the lab and on campus in general was exciting, and these experiences broadened his scientific interests considerably. Also privately, this was an exciting time, as his third son was born in Berkeley. After 2.5 years, the family decided to return to Germany, and out of pure chance ended in Heidelberg, where both were offered positions at the same time. Christian started his own lab at the University of Heidelberg investigating brain bases of individual differences in cognitive abilities like working memory, cognitive flexibility, and intelligence. Three years later, the Department of Psychology supported him to get a temporary Start-Up Professorship for Cognitive Neuroscience, and just a year later he received a tenured position at the University of Frankfurt. Another year later, Christian became the Managing Director of the Department of Psychology, and without ever planning so, he stayed in that position for five years. He felt that he is not too bad in this job, but science suffered noticeably. Today, Christian enjoys the amazing methodological advances our field makes – including network analyses, machine learning and pattern decoding – and tries to keep track with using at least some of these methods in his research. Mostly this depends on a group of talented and highly motivated grad students and PostDocs. Also, Christian is fascinated by the current Open Science developments in our field, and tries to promote these in the lab and in the Department. However, even today, coordinating research, teaching, and administration/management (not to mention family …) remains an ongoing challenge.