Dr Pascal Molenberghs
Name: Pascal Molenberghs
Title: Dr (Senior Lecturer)
Faculty: Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences (within the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences)
How long have you worked at Monash?
Since 1 January, 2015 (one year and a half).
Where did you work prior to starting at the University?
Previously, I worked as a postdoc at the University of Queensland. First in the Queensland Brain Institute and then the School of Psychology at UQ. Before that, I did my PhD at the University of Leuven (Belgium).
What do you like best about your role?
I love that my work gives me the freedom to explore the thing that I find the most interesting, which is trying to get a better understanding how our brain works. The brain is the most complex organ that we have and it is responsible for everything that we do, see, feel and think. We have learnt a lot in the past decades about how our brain works but there is still a lot of things that we don’t know. Recently, understanding the brain has been called science’s final frontier which makes it a very exciting time to work in this field.
Why did you choose your current career path?
Since I was a child, I have always been interested in understanding the world around us so I guess you could say I was born as a scientist. Although I have a very broad interest from biology to physics, it is humans that I find the most interesting.
Why do we do what we do? It all comes down to how our brain works. By better understanding the brain, I feel we can better explain why people behave in a particular way in different situations. I also find that psychology and neuroscience provides the tools to deal better with challenging situations in life and even provides insights into more philosophical questions such as do we have free will, does God exist or what is the meaning of life?
My first job was working as a waiter in a catering business. “Do you want more wine Miss or Sir?” The job was OK but it does get a bit boring after a while when you have to ask the same question over and over again. I once asked a woman, “do you want more wine Sir” by accident and she wasn’t too pleased by this.
My worst student job was working in a freezer. Sorting vegetables in an Inuit outfit in minus 10 degrees temperatures is not something I would recommend as a long term career goal.
My second worst student job was working in a radiator factory putting screws in radiators before they went into water to test if they were water proof. If you forgot to put in one of the screws or did not put them in correctly, you would get drenched with water. Funny the first time but less so when it happens several times and your supervisor gets angry and you realize you have to work in wet clothes for the rest of the day.
Even more demotivating was the fact than behind me a machine was doing exactly the same work on another assembly line (just much faster and more accurate). Because they did not have enough money yet to install a second machine they hired me in the meantime. It is pretty demotivating to know a machine can do your job much better and faster. On the positive side, it did motivate me to get a university education and so far they haven’t built a neuroscientist robot yet so my job should be safe in the near future.
What project are you currently working on and what does it involve?
At the moment, I am focused on understanding our social and emotional brain. In my lab (the Molenberghs Social Neuroscience Lab), we study complex human emotions such as empathy, prejudice, morality and the ability to understand others. We use a range of neuroimaging techniques and also work with stroke patients to better understand where and how these processes happen in the brain and what happens when they break down due to brain lesions.
Recently, we also started with two new exciting projects. One is a stress resilience program where we use mental and physical training to make people more stress resilient and the second is a real time fMRI neurofeedback project to help people overcome traumatic experiences.
What is your favourite place in the world and why?
My favourite holiday destination thus far is Borneo. I went there on a holiday a couple of years ago and it had all the things that I look for in a holiday: beautiful nature, amazing wildlife and excellent diving.
What is your favourite place to eat and why?
My favourite place to eat is Singapore. The food is amazing, very diverse and cheap. That said, the food in Melbourne is also very good (although typically a bit more expensive).
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
You can never have too much grant money.
Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues wouldn’t know.
I love cats. They are selfish psychopaths but for some reason you can’t help but love them. In my next life I definitely have to come back as one so that I can lay on the couch all day, get food and shelter for free, do whatever I want with total disregard for others but still end up being the most loved person in the house.