Helena Hartmann

How do we share another’s pain in our own brain?
University of Vienna
Hi! Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?

In my PhD, I investigate how we perceive, understand and share the suffering of other people around us, aka empathy for pain. Specifically I am interested in the brain regions and mechanisms underlying empathy, how this is connected to our own pain processing, and how this all related to prosocial, or helping, behavior. This means that I either deliver small electrical shocks to my participant’s hands or show them images of really really painful situations. Then I measure their brain activity with fMRI, use physiological data like heart rate and skin conductance and ask them how they perceive pain they get themselves or they see another person getting. In my research, I am especially focusing on brain regions such as anterior insula and anterior midcingulate cortex to try and figure out what role they plan during empathy. In general, I am a big Open Science enthusiast, try to preregister all my projects and strive for a transparent and honest reporting of methods and results throughout my studies. I am currently at the end of my third year, so I can already see light at the end of the tunnel! I am nearly finished with all the data collection (which included an fMRI and a behavioral experiment and testing around 200 participants), so the next months will mostly be dedicated to analyzing the data and writing up the results. I have one preprint and submitted manuscript, the rest will hopefully follow soon. Scientific journals, get ready, here I come!

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

I usually try to arrive at the office between 8 and 9, since my motivation and productivity levels are highest in the morning. I always start with e-mails so those are out of the way and then either read new papers, analyze data or write on my newest manuscript. Recently, I started to read one abstract a day to keep up with relevant publications in my field (check them out here). Luckily this morning routine was also easily adaptable in COVID-related home office times, where I additionally started each day with at-home yoga. In the lab, we usually eat lunch together around 12 and then I have scheduled meetings and more PhD-related work. Since I am still collecting data for my projects, I also supervise testing sessions during the day, conducted by my amazing master students and interns. They are helping me out a great deal, especially since testing one participant usually takes around 3-4 hours! A few hours a week I am additionally working for a start-up company developing a neurofeedback training for children with autism spectrum disorder, and I engage in science communication and outreach whenever I have time. Although I do work late once in a while when there is a deadline coming up, I try to be home around 18:00 to do some excercise, cook and relax by watching a show or reading. What I have learned over the course of my PhD is to keep my weekends work-free as best as possible to have a real break and take my mind off work.

What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?

What I enjoy most about my PhD experience is the collaboration and exchange with other researchers. I have an amazing colleague with whom I share an office and many more amazing connections, face-to-face in the lab and virtually on Science Twitter. This gives me a feeling of belonging and inclusion, that we are all striving towards achieving the same goal: Scientific discovery and knowledge creation. In general, I think that a stimulating and collaborative work environment does wonders for my mood and productivity!

What’s been the most challenging part of it?

The fact that I am the main responsible for such a big project has always appeared very challenging to me. There are so many things I don’t know or cannot do yet, it was hard to imagine at the beginning of my PhD that I will be able to plan, conduct, analyze, write and publish multiple studies, supervise students, teach, and much more! I relation to this, I have learned only very slowly to take enough breaks and keep a healthy work-life balance. Luckily, having regular contact to many other PhD candidates, this whole endeavor seems less daunting, once you notice that everybody is “in the same boat” and struggling in a similar way. We are all giving our best and are, most importantly, all still learning. Having a great PhD supervisor, whose door is always open when seemingly unsolvable problems arise, has also aided me a lot in gaining confidence what I know and that it’s okay to not know everything and just ask.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
Right now, science is what I want to do and continue doing, so I still see myself in academia 5 years after my PhD. However, I also recently discovered my passion for science communication/outreach, science administration and applied science, e.g. working or collaborating with industry. In my mind, I would love to combine all of these things in the future, but of course you can never know where life takes you in the end!

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
Doing a PhD is a great learning opportunity. Use this time to learn new things, gather theoretical and practical knowledge and connect to like-minded individuals. I definitely do not recommend prioritizing a fast graduation over possibilities like workshops, summer schools etc. In my opinion, a PhD is mainly there for learning about yourself and your passion. This should not be rushed!
And because two pieces of advice are better than one: Be prepared to fail – science is not perfect and especially PhD work is mostly dedicated to just figure stuff out. There will be lots of mistakes and lessons learned.

What makes your university a good place to study?

The University of Vienna has a great scientific infrastructure. There is an established network of scientists, and specifically PhD candidates, to connect with and many educational resources like free courses and workshops. Furthermore, the University has lots of funding opportunities for before, during or after the PhD, for conference visits or experiments. Especially the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Unit, where I work, is a big, international lab with many great minds and a fantastic collection of know-how. And of course Vienna itself is an amazing place to live and work (I have been doing that for 9 years, so I know what I’m talking about!), ranging from relaxing nature to buzzing city life.

Lastly, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love doing group sports classes like HIIT, yoga and pilates. In my free time, I also enjoy cooking and baking (mostly sourdough bread and desserts). A big passion of mine is photography: I often go for strolls around Vienna and other cities I visit to explore different locations with my camera.

Thanks Helena! How can our readers find out more about you and get in touch?

I have my own website where you can find all the science-related content like my research topics, papers, presentations, teaching and outreach activities. I am very active on (Academic) Twitter and you can also follow me on ResearchGate or LinkedIn. If you are interested in Open Science, have a look at my OSF profile, where I upload my preregistrations.

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