Teenagers get a lot of bad press. They’re often stereotyped as unthinking troublemakers, but that’s not an accurate view according to Eveline Crone, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience in Society at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). “The vast majority of young people want to make a positive difference,” she says. “They want to be socially accepted, are prosocial with their peers, and want to connect.” Older generations are frequently dismissive of younger ones saying any rebelliousness is part of a phase, forgetting that “novelty in society comes from young people with their new fashion, music, ideas, and technology. It’s really a period in life we should cherish.” She is convinced we need to involve teenagers more in finding solutions for the bigger problems we face today.
Eveline leads the SYNC (Society, Youth, and Neuroscience Connected) lab at EUR, where she and her team examine the relationship between adolescent brain development and changes in psychological processes. They use MRI scans to look at physical changes in the brain and see how they correspond to certain behaviours. “The processes my team and I investigate haven’t changed much over time,” she says, “certain aspects of adolescence, for example, risk-taking, novelty-seeking and being sensitive to the opinion of your friends could be seen even 2,000 years ago.”
Eveline joined EUR a year and a half ago, drawn not only by its commitment to research with a positive societal impact, but also by its entrepreneurial atmosphere, and emphasis on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. While outreach has always been a key element of Eveline’s research, her plan at EUR was to explore how she could take her work full circle from the lab to society and from society back to the lab. Being both a scientist and a citizen in society is central to her work. She wanted to know, “What can we learn from all the knowledge that is out there in these different institutions, organisations, municipalities, and also from youth workers and schools?” By focusing more on exchanging knowledge, her team was able to ask more focused scientific questions.
During the pandemic, Eveline recognised that young people were struggling, so she and her team used a living lab approach and set about engaging with youth in low socioeconomic neighbourhoods in Rotterdam. They found that their main concerns were, “How do I get a voice?” and “How can my voice matter now and in 10 years’ time?” Her team gathered stories and encouraged young people to come up with solutions to their problems. Their goal was to link adolescents with scientists and policymakers. They found that policymakers gave more weight to young people’s ideas when they were backed up by a scientific approach. She adds, “To complete the circle, we also investigate how the wellbeing of young people is affected by having a voice in society, so it feeds back into our scientific questions. It’s not only outreach; it’s also shaping our research programmes. It’s about making young minds matter.”
Eveline’s research has been recognised at the highest level, both at home and internationally. During her illustrious career, she’s received many awards, including the highest accolade in Dutch academia in 2017, the Spinoza Prize. She’s vice-president of the European Research Council, and along with other EUR researchers benefits from international collaborations that foster alliances, knowledge sharing, and inspiration. Eveline is also a prolific science communicator and has written best-sellers on the adolescent brain. Her early pioneering research with colleagues in the US even led to a change in Dutch law. They discovered that adolescents’ brains are extremely sensitive to rewards, which makes risk-taking seem more exciting. At the same time, their prefrontal cortexes (the brain’s impulse control centre) are not yet fully developed. This led the Dutch government to factor in brain maturity when increasing the age limit for juvenile prisons from 18 to 23 years.
Although Eveline has worked at many different universities, she’s happy to be back in Rotterdam, the bustling city of her childhood and adolescence. She’s excited to look at the city from a different perspective and work with the youth there. The proactive culture and lack of bureaucracy in EUR suit her desire to “get things done.” EUR’s international and multicultural environment was also a plus. She appreciates that the university is so future-oriented. People are always asking questions like “What are we going to do in the future?” and “How are we going to make a difference?” she says. “They kind of push you to follow your dreams and make a difference. That’s something I really enjoy.”
Prof. Eveline Crone is full professor in Developmental Neuroscience in Society at Erasmus University Rotterdam and leads the SYNC lab (Society, Youth and Neuroscience Connected).