“Remember to do your best”, Hanan El Marroun (41) tells her young daughters every day before they head off to school. Her parents would often tell her the same thing when she was a child. “It was instilled in me from a young age”, she says. “I’m thorough in everything I do.”

This has paid dividends. El Marroun has been professor of Biological Psychology at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences since March last year. In addition, she has been active as chair of VENA, Erasmus MC’s network for female academics, for several years now. This has won her the FAME Athena Award, an annual award presented during the Dies Natalis celebrations to people who have nurtured female talent within the university. She has also been writing columns for Erasmus Magazine since last month.

Black box

As a scholar, El Marroun has spent more than fifteen years now studying the topic that fascinates her most: the human brain. In particular, she looks at how that ‘incredibly flexible, resilient organ’ develops under the influence of addictive substances, such as alcohol and nicotine.

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Imposter syndrome

Since Hanan El Marroun became a professor, the little voice in her head questioning her…

For example, El Marroun and her colleagues have studied the effect of smoking during pregnancy on babies’ long-term brain development. One of the most significant conclusions is that, when they were ten years old, the children had smaller brains. “Although we now know an awful lot about the brain, it’s still a black box”, she says. “Its sheer complexity means that researchers have plenty of questions to explore and plenty of room for improvement. That’s what I like so much about studying the brain.”

The question to which she is most eager to find an answer is why some people get addicted to those substances while others do not. “We know that biological, social and psychological factors all play a role, but we’re not yet in a position to predict who will and who won’t develop a substance abuse problem”, says the neuroscientist. “It might be a question that proves impossible to answer, but if we do figure it out, then we’ll be able to develop better treatments.”

Two worlds

Finding an answer to such complex questions requires El Marroun to use her chair to bridge the gap between two faculties: medical science and the social sciences. “I’m joining those two worlds together, because I want to study everything from different perspectives”, she says. “You’ll miss the bigger picture if you only look at something from one angle.”

She attributes this way of thinking to her childhood. As a daughter of Moroccan parents, she grew up in the Schilderswijk district of The Hague. “I’ve been straddling two worlds – Dutch and Moroccan – from a tender age. I’ve found that both worlds have positive aspects to them. I’m very warm and always punctual, for instance”, she says with a smile. “It’s about combining those two worlds to create something beautiful.”

Laying myself bare

However, there is also a downside to her diverse background. As a young woman with Moroccan parents, El Marroun often found herself being underestimated. For example, in her final year of primary school, her parents were advised not to send her to an academically oriented secondary school, though she went on to attend one and successfully complete her studies there. “People initially tend to wonder whether I’m capable of doing certain work. But once they’re working with me, they soon realise that I’m perfectly capable.”

Nevertheless, El Marroun still frequently suffers from imposter syndrome, as she wrote in her first column for Erasmus Magazine. She even had doubts about her abilities when EM approached her and asked her to be a columnist. “Writing my columns requires me to lay myself bare, which entails a fair bit of anxiety. Nevertheless, I just knuckle down, as I’m really not one to back down from anything.”

Moreover, as she gets to hear at VENA’s board meetings, plenty of highly educated women are plagued by a sense of not being up to scratch. As chair of VENA, which was set up to boost the number of female professors at the hospital, El Marroun is heavily involved in bolstering women’s position in academia.

Daarvoor ontving zij dit jaar de FAME Athena Award. “Dat was een grote eer, maar eigenlijk zijn we met een heel team van ambitieuze dames van het Erasmus MC”, zegt ze. “Inmiddels stijgt het aantal vrouwelijke hoogleraren gestaag, maar er is nog steeds werk aan de winkel.”

For these efforts, she was awarded the FAME Athena Award this year. “That was a real honour, but it is in fact a joint effort, since we have a whole team of ambitious women at Erasmus MC”, she points out. “The number of female professors is now gradually rising, though there’s still plenty of work to be done.”

Role model

El Marroun also aims to make science more universally accessible. To do so, she started the Instagram account hersen_onderzoeker, which she uses to explain the results of brain research in a straightforward way. “I felt it was a shame that so much great scientific research is confined to scholarly articles”, she explains. “And a lot of those articles are impenetrable for laypeople.”

El Marroun is now regarded as a kind of role model, especially in the Moroccan community. It is a role that she is embracing, albeit modestly. “After I was made a professor, I got lots of invites to be a guest speaker at primary schools”, she says. “I think it’s important for children to see that you can become a professor even if your name is Hanan, but above all, I enjoy speaking about the brain, which really is incredibly interesting.”