Prof. Dr. Silvia Daun: Research Group Leader and Deputy Institute Director

Silvia Daun leans with one arm over a screen and smiles friendly into the camera. The screen shows MRI scans of a human brain and a reconstruction of a head.
Forschungszentrum Jülich / Sascha Kreklau

Prof. Dr. Silvia Daun heads the Computational Neurology research group at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine — Cognitive Neuroscience (INM-3) at Forschungszentrum Jülich. She is also Deputy Institute Director as well as Professor for Computational Neuroscience at the University of Cologne’s Zoological Institute.

Can you describe your daily work routine?

When I arrive at the Institute in the morning, I start by getting myself a coffee and reading my emails. Once I’ve caught up on my correspondence, I usually speak to my co-workers in person, either one-to one or in the format of a seminar. We might have to discuss matters such as the design of an experiment that is to be conducted, how to analyse the collected data, or the neuroscientific interpretation of the results. The results also have to be published, so I supervise my co-workers’ scientific writing, which entails proofreading and developing their drafts.

As Deputy Director of INM-3, my daily work also consists of management tasks concerning the Institute’s leadership and administrative matters. This includes planning staffing levels and budgets. My work also comprises designing new research projects, coming up with new research trends and supervising and training the Master’s students and PhD and post-doctoral researchers who carry out the research projects.

In addition, I offer a seminar on various theoretical neuroscience topics at the University of Cologne each week during the semester.

What are you working on at the moment? Could you tell us about a current project as an example?

I have been working in the innovative field of computational neuroscience for over a decade at this point. Based on experimental data from the various levels of the nervous system, I develop mathematical models, then use them for numerical simulation. This allows me to formulate hypotheses about complex processes of the nervous system, which can then be tested in newly planned experiments.

For example, one project is aimed at developing new therapeutic approaches for movement disorders in stroke patients — a disease that is becoming increasingly important due to the rising average age of our society. To develop these approaches, I am investigating the activity of neuronal networks located in the cortex of the human brain that are responsible for our motor functions. Starting points for my research include electrophysiological measurements such as electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetoencephalography (MEG) as well as imaging methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), combined with behavioural measurements. On top of that, I use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to activate certain areas of the brain or to inhibit their activity, thereby actively influencing the network activity from the outside. I develop suitable analysis methods as well as mathematical models in order to analyse the complex data sets obtained as well as to understand how the various areas of the motor cortex that are involved in motor action interact. This allows us to recognise and understand dysfunctions in motor network dynamics, such as those that occur during a stroke. Furthermore, the knowledge gained helps in the elaboration of new hypotheses on how stroke-related dysfunctions can be corrected, or healthy ways of functioning can be relearned.

Unfortunately, the proportion of women in leadership positions in science is still quite low. How do you experience this reality in your everyday work?

I still work mainly with men — especially in leadership positions. In this context, I’ve always found it useful to adopt the “male” perspective and way of acting in order to conduct goal-oriented discussions with colleagues.

In general, the path to a professorship is a rocky one, as vacancies for the many excellent young female and male scientists are few and far between. It is quite competitive, and you need to be aware of that, without letting it discourage you. However, this also means that getting ahead requires showing huge commitment and expending a lot of energy. So if you are one of those people who can get so engrossed in a problem, or a question fascinates you so much that you lose track of time, this can be advantageous!

What aspects of your work motivate you?

I find research fascinating because I can always learn something new, personally evolve, make things happen and help people. I do something new day-in day-out and can look forward to new results almost every day, which in turn give rise to ideas that I then try to integrate into the research projects.

Last Modified: 01.12.2023