Anita Jansen Anita Jansen Philip Driessen

The musical, athletic psychologist

In Mind
Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Friday, 03 November 2017 09:14

One thing is clear after our in-depth interview: if it wasn’t academia, she could easily have had a successful career in music or sport. Fun and substance are the two words she uses most – the guiding principles behind all her choices. She’s never been into career planning. This year Anita Jansen, professor of Experimental Clinical Psychology and dean of the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, was made a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

“Of course I’m happy with the appointment – it’s a huge honour – but personally I’m not that interested in titles and hierarchy. For me it’s about the substance of the work. It surprises me how strategic young academics are these days. Everything revolves around ‘how can I be made professor?’ and they come to me to ‘network’. While I’m thinking, where’s the fun in your research? No doubt it’s because they’re under greater pressure to perform. But when I started in experimental psychopathology here in the mid-1980s, we talked about nothing but our research; during the day at work and in the evening at the pub. We were young pups, constantly coming up with experiments.” During lunch she and a colleague gave concerts. “We used to play Bach, he on the guitar, me on the violin. As dean, I try to recreate that atmosphere in the faculty. Our board has a monthly lunch with the assistant professors to find out how they’re doing. What’s going well, what isn’t and what needs to change. But I want to involve the support staff as well. We’ve started an academy for them where our scientists present their research, so that the support staff – who work hard for the research and teaching too – know what they’re doing it for”, she explains enthusiastically. “I want to return to our core tasks: doing top research and giving students a great education.”

It’s all fun

Jansen does not come from an academic environment. Born and raised in Utrecht, she is the middle child in a Catholic family with five children. “My father laid communication cables in the street and later worked his way up to be an office clerk at the PTT [a former state utilities company]. My mother was a housewife who looked after the children. I had a great childhood. I enjoyed lots of things: I liked playing football with my younger brother, but I also played with dolls and read books. As a teenager I was very left wing and critical. I worked on the school newspaper, had leftie friends with long hair, and of course that sometimes made for conflict at home. But like my father, I loved music. His family was very musical. There was no money for instruments, but it was free to sing in a choir, so many of his brothers and sisters did that. I was keen to play the piano and violin, but our house was small and had very thin walls, so I was given an organ with headphones for my 15th birthday. Not exactly what I wanted, but at least I could play. When I was 16 I used my savings to buy my first violin for 100 guilders from a Chinese shop. It sounded awful of course. When my parents saw that I was serious, they bought me a better violin. I learnt fast and was admitted two years later to the preparatory year of the conservatory. But I was too far behind the other students, who had often played from a very young age. So I decided to study psychology and quickly discovered that I really enjoyed doing research.”

As if that weren’t enough, Jansen is also a keen and talented athlete. Football was her first love. “When I watched our women during the European Championship, I thought, oh, I would have liked that. I played a lot of street football with the boys, but my parents wouldn’t let me join a club because they didn’t think it was right for girls.” Next she tried her hand at tennis. “I played for one year and became the club champion. I was just fit and could hit the ball hard. But I was kind of the odd one out, because I played in shorts instead of the required skirt. Then I discovered basketball, and that I really liked.” Despite starting this, too, at a relatively late age, she was soon invited to play with the Utrecht Cangeroes in the highest amateur division. “I shared a house with some of my teammates, and made friends for life.”

The most fun

In 1984 Jansen started an internship in Maastricht, intrigued by the research being done on anorexia. “I found anorexia extremely interesting. It was a hot topic back then, all over the pages of women’s magazines. And the main expert was based here.” During this first internship in clinical psychology she was captivated by the innovative experimental research on behavioural disorders. Never one to stay on the beaten track, she stuck around to do another internship and give her own twist to her final year. “Because clinical psychology in those days was too soft for my liking, and didn’t involve much research, I wanted to combine two specialisations, physiological and clinical psychology. The Exam Board gave me the green light. That combination of biology and psychology, body and mind, that’s what I find really interesting.”

On graduating she was immediately offered a lectureship in Maastricht. Here too she went her own way, pioneering the use of experimental research methods to study eating disorders. “In experimental research you try to study causality in a laboratory setting. For example: if I make people sad, do they go and eat more?” And so began her groundbreaking research on eating disorders, for which she was awarded a Vici grant in 2011. She and her team discovered, among other things, that eating behaviour is largely learned and that people with eating disorders have a more realistic body image than healthy people. “My strength is that I can strip things back to their core and I’m creative, so they say. I have lots of ideas and I’m good at coming up with nice, simple experiments. Also, I enjoy writing nice pieces to try to persuade people of my ideas – that’s important too.”


The research may have been fun, but the initial transition from Utrecht to Maastricht was rocky. “Let’s just say it was a culture shock. In those days I still looked like a bit of a punk. People would stare at me on the street, and when the Pope came to visit the police picked me up because they thought I looked shady”, she laughs. She hadn’t lived in Maastricht long when both her parents passed away within six months of each other. Her father, 53, died of skin cancer, and her mother suffered a heart attack at 57. “It was a tough time. My father was already seriously ill when I came to Maastricht. For me that was an argument against leaving, but he wouldn’t hear of it. At home we never talked much about feelings, it was more ‘don’t whinge, just get on with it’. That’s why he went to the doctor about a melanoma too late. My mother’s death was completely unexpected. There you are, 25 years old, having to deal with things that never crossed your mind.”

After ten years in Maastricht she was keen to return to the Randstad. “Louis Boon, the dean in those days, was smart and told me, ‘Go for one year and come back after that.’ And that’s what happened. I went to Amsterdam as a guest researcher and met my husband [Fren Smulders] at the UvA. He was a postdoc involved in EEG. I was keen to come back because I really missed the unique EPP research here, and luckily Fren was able to get a job at the new psychology faculty too. So it was a successful year”, she smiles. Some time out is, in her view, something all researchers should get the chance to enjoy. She took a sabbatical in 2007, spending a year in New Zealand with her husband and their three young children. “We both worked at the University of Otago. I wrote dozens of articles there; it was wonderful. You finally get around to it.”

No end

Now that the children have mostly left home, she has more time for other things. “And that ends up being work again”, she says with a guffaw. She is sorry the Vici grant has come to an end: “There’s nothing nicer than working with such a great team of PhD candidates.” How does she picture her last ten years before retirement? “I want to help change the culture of the faculty. I’d never have thought it, but I really enjoy being dean. And when am I ever going to retire?”


Anita Jansen (56) is professor of Experimental Clinical Psychology and dean of the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. She studies eating behaviour, eating disorders and obesity: from brain activity and cognitive processes to behavioural patterns and treatment. Her iBook Learning not to eat: A guide for therapists was published in 2015. She received a Vici grant in 2011 and was appointed a member of the KNAW in 2017.

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