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Why I do research

Valerie Jentsch investigates our reactions to stress

  • 07.09.2023

How does stress affect our emotions and cognitive abilities? Dr. Valerie Jentsch focuses on these research questions. In addition, she supports early career researchers in the SFB 1280.

What motivates you to go to the lab every day?
I enjoy how many aspects there are to my day-to-day research. It allows me to tackle so many roles: researcher, teacher, project manager, author. I get to pass on knowledge to students, carry out large projects from proposal drafting to data analysis, and publish research results. What I particularly enjoy is the exchange with other academics and the insights into different research projects. We learn so much and never stop learning – that’s what being a researcher is all about.

Looking at cognitive neuroscience, what is its most fascinating aspect for you?
The fascinating thing about my discipline, i.e. cognitive neuroscience, is that we can do much more than just issue questionnaires: we get to measure the physiological processes and reactions of our participants. I’m fascinated by the underlying biological processes and the objective measurement units, because the answers our participants provide to the questions in the surveys are by their very nature subjective. For my PhD, for example, I measured the brain activity of my participants using functional imaging (fMRI). With this method I could find out how the stress hormone cortisol affects our memory: which brain areas are active? Which are suppressed or enhanced by cortisol?

Subjective stress assessment doesn’t necessarily match the hormonal stress response.

In our stress research projects, we often measure the pupil dilation and skin conductance response of our participants during various cognitive and emotional processes – both are objective measures of arousal. This is not something that participants can deliberately control. For me, it’s exciting to evaluate whether the subjective experiences of our participants – that is, what we collect via questionnaires and ratings – match their physiological responses. In fact, our data often show that the subjective stress assessment doesn’t necessarily match the hormonal stress response.

Which research finding surprised you the most?
I found it most surprising that acute stress, i.e. the release of the stress hormone cortisol, has a beneficial effect on our ability to regulate our emotions. We had suspected the opposite to be the case. In follow-up studies, we’ve confirmed this finding again and again.

Currently, I’m investigating the intriguing question of how physical exercise affects extinction learning, i.e. the processes of learning, remembering, and forgetting. I’m thrilled about this research question, because I’m a great sports enthusiast and the research project reflects my personal interests.

You are the chair of the early career researchers at the Collaborative Research Center 1280. What inspired you to accept this role?
As a PhD student, I very much enjoyed the exchange of ideas among arly career researchers. I found it extremely rewarding to compare notes with like-minded people who were at the same career stage. After all, you always think you’re alone with your problems – but then you realize you’re not. The meetings were fruitful, we attended training courses, organized workshops and benefited from coaching, for example in the area of science communication. In addition, we have jointly organized symposia that attracted renowned international researchers as speakers.

The early career researchers are the future of research.

And so, when the invitation came, I was delighted to accept the chair of the early career researchers. This network of PhD students is immensely valuable. It also sometimes leads to smaller research collaborations. The early career researchers are the future of research. It is super important to support this next generation of researchers. I’ve always received a lot of encouragement and support from researchers who were higher up the career ladder. Now, as a postdoc, I’d like to give that back to the community.


Cognitive Neuroscience in Duisburg-Essen and Bochum
Learning, remembering, predicting – researchers aim to understand these processes from the molecular to the behavioural level. To this end, the University of Duisburg-Essen and Ruhr University Bochum cooperate in the Collaborative Research Centre 1280 “Extinction Learning”, from which the larger network of the Berlin-Bochum Memory Alliance has emerged. Furthermore, there is close cooperation in the research group “Affective and cognitive mechanisms of specific Internet-use disorders” and in various other projects. In 2021, the Research Center One Health was founded – providing another opportunity for the two universities to combine their strength. Already since 2007, Ruhr University Bochum, the University of Duisburg-Essen and the Technical University of Dortmund have been working closely together strategically under the umbrella of the University Alliance Ruhr.

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