Personnel Image

Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

10 January 2024

Related Study Areas

Studying cognitive neuroscience

JCU Psychology Senior Lecturer Dr Liza van Eijk has always been interested in how human biology and human thought processes work together. Liza shares more about her current research projects and why neuroscience skills can be essential for people interested in working in fields such as sales and marketing or government.

Liza says that she has been interested not only in Psychology but also the inner workings of the brain ever since she was a Psychology student in the Netherlands back in 2009. “I wanted to understand where our behaviours are coming from, but I wasn’t sure I if wanted to study to become a medical doctor,” she says.

“Back in the Netherlands, I also had to choose if I wanted to work as a clinical psychologist or as a researcher, but I felt that it was difficult to choose. Both aspects interested me. So, I studied all of the clinical subjects, including an internship to really get that experience with clients,” she says. “On top of that, I also did a research internship in England.”

Liza says during her internship she learned how to interpret images from a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, which paved the way for her to pursue research in Australia. After finishing her postdoctoral research in Brisbane that focused on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Liza eventually moved to Townsville in 2021.

At JCU, she has been working as a neuroscience lecturer and a researcher, where she has been conducting research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and MR images of newborn children, among others.

Liza van Eijk.
Girl watching TV.
Liza van Eijk (left, supplied)

Teaching neuroscience at JCU

Liza says that she is passionate about both research and teaching at JCU. “I am interested in the link between our brain and our behaviour, and the subjects I teach here at JCU are related to that. The second-year subject I teach, for instance, focuses on behavioural neuroscience, and the third year one is about cognitive neuroscience,” Liza says.

“Neuroscientists investigate the underlying mechanisms of our behaviour, for instance when people make decisions. We are asking what is driving our decisions, and if our neurotransmitters could play a role in this,” Liza says.

“To give an example, if you watch commercials, some of them are super-catchy. These commercials focus on that reward system that we have in our brain, and therefore they are definitely involved in our decision making.”

Liza says that some students may see neuroscience as a challenging area of study due to the biology and anatomy that is discussed in these subjects. “But then students see they are learning more about their own brain and their own behaviour,” she says.

“They are getting an understanding of why they are doing things the way they do, such why they keep postponing working on that essay”, Liza says and laughs.

“The students and I also discuss how certain medications can impact a patient's behaviour, such as antidepressants. That is going to help future graduates if they are planning to work in the clinical space. So, these neuroscience subjects are really about opening up students’ minds to these concepts,” Liza says.

Helping infants at risk

Aside from teaching, Liza says she finds it rewarding that her research intersects with both psychology and human biology. “We value that information from biology, and we value that information from the clinical psychology space.

“Linking it together, we can explain what's happening in the brain. We can relate brain patterns to clinical symptoms we're seeing in particular patients or vice versa.” Liza says that having this information helps psychologists better assess how they can best help their patients.

Liza is currently working on a research project that takes MR images of infants who may be at risk for adverse outcomes later in life, such as children born preterm or with a brain bleed.

The research will examine to what extent the MRI brain scans can help predict which challenges these infants may face in the future. This will assist in offering the appropriate early intervention to such infants in the future.

“We are very close to getting that project off the ground. All the approvals are in, and there's a new MRI scanner in Townsville. It's all perfect timing,” she says. “We hope to get the pilot study up and running soon in both Townsville and Cairns. So that's definitely my main focus within the next few months.”

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine

Monitoring the health of infants over time

Liza says that her funding covers taking MR images of 21 babies in the neonatal unit, which then will be analysed. “We are working closely the hospitals in Townsville and Cairns," Liza says, "and we are planning to follow up with the clinicians in Cairns and Townsville when the children are a bit older, and then see how they are doing.”

Liza adds that in her line of research, the support from clinicians who are working with the patients is essential. “I'm very grateful to have found these clinicians in Cairns and Townsville who support our research to improve healthcare in North Queensland,” she says.

Researching multiple sclerosis

Liza says that she has also received funding for a research assistant who will support her on a related research project that aims to help patients with multiple sclerosis (also known as MS), which is a debilitating incurable auto-immune disease. This research will again be using MR images.

“I'm quite interested to look at those MR images, relate those to the different treatments that these patients have received,” she says. This research could help establish a link between certain treatments and the progression of the disease.

The many uses of psychology skills

Liza says that studying Psychology isn’t a one size fits all and can open up a number of pathways in your career or research. “What students learn in psychology can be useful not only for clinical psychologists but also for careers in sales or marketing, or work focused on increasing job performance, or creating happier workplaces," Liza says.

"Graduates can also help increase environmental sustainability (such as in Government and policy) and many other occupations, including crime-related fields. Knowing how people respond to certain things is crucial, no matter where you are going to work.

“If you are interested in understanding human behaviour and thoughts, psychology is the way to go,” Liza says.

Discover JCU Psychology

Study the human mind and help improve mental wellbeing for all ages