Research exchange: An eye-opener to new perspectives

Caro Hautekiet is a PhD candidate researching in working memory and attention at the Working Memory, Cognition and Development Lab of Prof. Evie Vergauwe at the University of Geneva. Supervised by Prof. Vergauwe and Dr. Naomi Langerock, she tries to characterize the focus of attention in working memory in her PhD thesis. Through the funding of the UZH-UNIGE Strategic Partnership, she was able to go on a one-month long research exchange in May 2022 to work with Prof. Klaus Oberauer, Head of the Professorship for Cognitive Psychology at the University of Zurich. The research exchange turned out to serve her current research far more than she expected. In an interview, Caro Hautekiet talked about the many different perspectives this exchange opened up to her, not only facilitating her research but also impacting her personal ambitions.

 

An unexpected turnaround

When Caro Hautekiet started planning her research exchange at the University of Zurich, she expected this visit to be a side project of one of the research lines of her PhD thesis. However, what happened in the meantime is something that probably many researchers are familiar with: she got stuck. When examining how visual interference affects information that is held in working memory, she tested whether the information was affected by this interference and surprisingly did not find the effect that she expected.

 

In discussing the problem with Prof. Oberauer, one of the leading experts in the field of working memory, he recognized a possible shortcoming that she had not yet considered. He encouraged her to address the question in a different manner, that is, to not only test whether the information in working memory is affected by interference but also whether the interference might intrude in working memory. This would allow her to get a better understanding of how working memory is affected by interference. With this input, Caro Hautekiet could confidently resume her research once she arrived in Zurich. Already in the early stages of her research exchange, she started discussing next steps with Prof. Oberauer. Thanks to these initial meetings, she was able to work very efficiently during her first days in Zurich. Being ahead of schedule allowed her to dive more deeply into discussions with other lab members and get a more diverse set of opinions on her project.

 

Different perspectives: complementary or contradictory?

Prof. Oberauer and Caro Hautekiet’s PhD supervisor, Prof. Vergauwe, are from different theoretical backgrounds when it comes to researching working memory. Their opinions on the functioning of working memory diverge on certain key aspects. For example, Prof. Oberauer is of the opinion that the main reason for forgetting in working memory can be assigned to interference, while Prof. Vergauwe holds that it can be assigned to decay. To the PhD candidate, these diverging perspectives were not a hindrance, but rather a reminder to stay open-minded. She even considered Prof. Vergauwe and Prof. Oberauer to be quite similar as they are open to any outcome in their research. It was something that she learned from both of them.

 

Putting these perspectives together is really nice to get a broader perspective on the research question.

Caro Hautekiet

In fact, Caro Hautekiet considered the different theoretical backgrounds of the two professors to have been fundamental for her research. Prof. Oberauer’s background and external viewpoint allowed her to see the research from another angle, revealing some points that could be worked on differently.

 

A network and career boost

On a personal level, the research exchange also opened up new perspectives for Caro Hautekiet. Through working in a different lab, she met many researchers, especially other PhD candidates, with whom she would like to stay in contact for developing future collaborations. Such opportunities of researcher mobility are important for the future career of a young researcher as they facilitate collaboration with other professors and researchers, particularly regarding joint publications. Caro Hautekiet now plans to apply for a Postdoc Mobility Grant with the Swiss National Science Foundation. Thanks to her great experience at the University of Zurich, she could imagine doing a part of her postdoc research at Prof. Oberauer’s lab in Zurich.

 

This visit was important for Caro Hautekiet’s future career, no doubt. But she also enjoyed it personally: living in another city, discovering new places, and meeting different people. She was particularly enthusiastic about the fabulous Mexican restaurants in Zurich.

 

The new cultural, academic and personal perspectives that a research exchange can open up may at times be surprising but are in many ways invaluable.

 

 

Learn more about Caro Hautekiet’s projects here.

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