How would you explain to a family member what your doctoral research was about?

“My study focused on the development of visual search behaviour in adolescents. This may sound very scholarly, but it’s part of nearly everything we do in daily life. When you pour yourself a cup of tea, you will first look for a pot, and your hand will reach for it, while your eyes are already looking for a cup. I often use the example of an IKEA bookcase to explain what I mean: the better you are at scanning the various parts and screws and finding what you need quickly, the faster you will assemble the bookcase. We did not decide to research this because we were curious to learn more about eye movements, but because it has implications for nearly all of adolescents’ behaviour. If you are good at finding things quickly, you will basically be more successful at everything.”

What did your research involve in practice?

“Putting a whole lot of IKEA stuff on the floor and observing how long it takes people to find everything they need is a bit messy, so we created ‘Where’s Wally?’-type images in which our subjects had to find a specific figure. They had to determine whether the figure was included in the image or not as quickly and accurately as possible. In the end we found that secondary-school students completed their searches more quickly as they got older, without making more mistakes. They needed less and less time to scan one image and were able to determine more quickly where to look next. In addition, we found that as children grow older, they become more able to derive information from a detail, while simultaneously obtaining information about the entire picture. In other words, they learned to scan a specific spot as well as the image in its entirety. It turned out that practice in that sort of thing was a more important factor than age.”

Was that your main conclusion?

“Yes. But we also drew another important conclusion, namely that you can train visual search behaviour through sports and games, such as playing volleyball or making music. These are things the children I observed, who live in a particularly well-off part of the Netherlands, did a lot. However, if you grow up in an environment where participation in such activities is not encouraged, for instance because your parents can’t afford it, you will fall behind in that kind of training. I feel policy-makers should take this into account. Coaches, parents and teachers can help children develop this skill to a higher level. For instance, they could incorporate it into football training, by asking children to dribble a ball through cones while simultaneously counting how many of their teammates are standing around them.”

So you are saying you will be more successful in nearly all activities of daily living if you learn how to find things more quickly?

“Yes. There are a few intermediate steps, but that’s basically what it boils down to. Teach adolescents how to find things and they will do nearly everything more quickly.”

How did you encounter this subject?

“I have been working at the Gemeentelijk Gymnasium school in Hilversum for ten years now. Before that time I worked with young shoeshine boys in Bolivia and Brazil for sixteen years, and before that I ran a tutoring service. During the course of those years, adolescents made a very favourable impression on me. Many people believe that adolescents are lazy, annoying and rude. I’m actually quite impressed with what street kids can achieve on their own if they receive just the tiniest bit of help. As a physicist I wish to record and clarify things. I was motivated by a combination of these two things. I wanted to know whether I was able to say something about the development of teenagers that was not purely dependent on my own positive sentiments and optimism.

“About eight years ago I was considering going abroad again when I came across a brochure advertising grants for lecturers who wished to get a doctorate – not because they wished to stop teaching, but to broaden their knowledge. I thought I might have been out of academia for too long to be able to obtain a doctorate, so I asked a former fellow student who works in academia for his opinion. He said at once: ‘Of course you can do it. You can code and analyse, you have a lot of experience working with adolescents and you know how to use equipment, so you should have no difficulty conducting experimental research.’ After that there was no looking back. In the end, he served as my secondary PhD supervisor.”

Did you ever think: I’m quitting?

“For a long time, I felt that my personal life was happening against the backdrop of my research, even though my life was obviously the most important thing, and my dissertation was supposed to be no more than a part of that. This was a lesson I had to learn, and which I would like to pass on to other PhD students: ask yourself every once in a while whether you are striking the right balance. As far as that is concerned, I was fortunate enough to have my husband, who would regularly tell me: ‘Put it aside for the time being and sleep on it tonight.’ My paranimfen [attendants], two good friends of mine, were crucial as well. One of them always had good coffee waiting for me, and the other let me use their bath tub, which always came with a glass of port wine, before dinner.”

What is on the cover?

“The signatures of all the children who took part in the study. After all, they are the subject.”