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I have always been fascinated by how siblings with similar genetics and living in the same environment can be so different

Mateja Erce, assistant researcher at InnoRenew CoE; main area of research: built environments for older adults

  • Where were you living in childhood and where do you live now?

I spent my life in, at that time, a medium-small village in Gorenjska, at the end of the street. On the other side of it, there is still a forest that we used to love to go into. Next to the house was a large meadow, which was a great joy for us children, especially when it was mown, because we could jump over the mown grass and have a lot of fun. At the beginning of my student years, I moved to the coast, more specifically to the centre of Koper. The city has the advantage of having everything right in front of your nose, but at the same time, it carries a huge deficit of authenticity of nature and the freedom that goes with it.

  • What have you studied and what were the motives for your decision?

I studied, well, I am still studying at the Faculty of Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Information Technologies (FAMNIT), where I started by studying in biopsychology, continued with applied psychology, and I am now studying for a PhD in Renewable Resources for Healthy Built Environments. I decided to study psychology mainly because I am curious about how people think and act, how different factors influence us and create our lives. I have always been fascinated by how siblings with similar genetics and living in the same environment can be so different. At the same time, I wanted to know how to help people in different situations. For my PhD, I was inspired by the work of InnoRenew CoE, which has been doing research to prove the positive aspects of natural materials on human well-being. Living in the city awakened in me a sense to a of lack of contact with nature, which made me realise that nature and its elements have a positive influence on me, too. However, as I had no knowledge of construction, architecture and similar fields, PhD study made me even more interested in broadening my horizons and trying to help people in the field of the built environment as well. My PhD will enable me to help people in the field of healthy living, in addition to the psychological and social fields.

  • How would you describe your work to someone outside your field?

Most of my working day is spent in the office, reviewing the literature to help me put together the bigger picture of my research, writing papers and preparing for conferences. I am currently working on the Pharaon project, where we are trying to improve the quality of life of older people through technology and a human-centred approach. I attend meetings and training sessions as part of the project, mostly online due to the current situation, but also some face-to-face meetings. I also compile various materials, carry out research and plan future activities.

  • What does your typical working day look like?

I usually start my working day between 7:00 and 8:00, watering the flowers and other plants in the office ( 😊 ), then switching on my computer and monitor, checking my email and other networks to see what has happened since I was last there, and then starting my activities. Most of the work is done at the computer, except when meetings in person and research happen. It depends a lot on what is going on — my day may be 100% spent on the computer, or I may not see the computer for a day.

  • What makes you excited about your work?

I am most impressed by the different results of studies. I am often surprised by the results of studies or very pleased to discover through the literature that my thinking is correct or that I am thinking in the right direction. I feel a special triumph when we finish a study, when we analyse the data and get results that lead in the direction we want to go or in the direction we want to improve. Results that indicate or even confirm that we are doing something right.

  • And what is the biggest challenge at your work?

Occasional lack of dynamism at work, as I am a very dynamic person by nature. I also lack contact with people at the moment, as I find that I am much more productive when I am around people or at least interacting with them. The challenge I see with my PhD is how to do the best quality research possible in four years and not burn out.

  • Which scientist or scientific achievement are you fascinated by and why?

I particularly appreciate the discovery of mirror neurons in the premotor cortex by the neuroscientist Rizzolatti and his colleagues in the 1980s, as they are the neurological explanation of imitation learning and empathy. This is how we somehow read other people’s minds and feel empathy. Let me explain. When we see a child fall off a swing and hit his head, we, as observers from afar, feel a little pain in our own head and we feel empathy for the child. Or when a mother grabs a nut in the kitchen and carries it to her mouth, a child of a few months will grab a piece of carrot in front of him/her with a pincer grip and carry it to her/his mouth. So, observing an action and performing that action activates the same parts of the brain. Well, at least for the macaque monkey it does, as the team led by Rizzolatti discovered. But much more research is needed in this area. Incidentally, new research is needed in all areas.

  • Tell us about the work of art (books, music, movies, theatre, dance, visual arts) that has a special place in your life.

Music has definitely played the biggest role in my life and has been with me since I was a little girl. It calms me down when I am angry, irritated, worried, and it lifts me up when I have no energy and rejoices with me at the same time. I find music for every emotional state and desired effect. Since I was a little girl, I have also been surrounded by books, which have given me the seedbed for life — imagination and that childlike spark of exploration (as in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five). Books are probably the reason I got into the research area, while music makes sure I never give up. So, I can’t say specifically which work has a special place in my life because the spectrum is just too wide.

  • What have you read, listened to, or watched lately?

I like to watch series or films that awaken my imagination, so that I can dream about them later. At the same time, I also like to watch documentaries. Recently, I watched “Wisdom of Trauma” by Gabor Mate, who is very dear to my heart because he is an extremely warm-hearted person with a lot of knowledge. I also watched the series “A Life on Our Planet” by David Attenborough, which shows so much wonderful nature and animals. What both films have in common, however, is their depth, which reveals new themes that we need to look at and not turn a blind eye to, and at the same time, raises many new questions.

  • Which place on the Slovene coast do you like the most?

I have a few favourite spots on the Slovenian coast, all of them surrounded by nature. Hills and forests hold a special place in my heart, where I breathe in the fresh air, activate all the muscles in my body and relax my mind. And when I need a good relaxation for my soul and my body is tired, I go to the Moon Bay.

  • What makes you enthusiastic?

When I see the gratitude and / or spark in people’s eyes when you have helped them, showed them, taught them, etc. That is why I am happy to be able to contribute to science a piece to the mosaic of knowledge that will help improve a population that is growing and at the same time can be so very vulnerable.

  • Characterize your life’s guidance or an important realization (or epiphany) you have experienced.

The bad things help us to see the good things, the opportunities, the beauty of life. Because if we didn’t have rain, we wouldn’t know how to appreciate the sun. It is also important never to give up. And rain can be fun. Try jumping in puddles like little children or swinging in the rain sometime. A great feeling of freedom, I must say 😊

  • What does the charm of wood mean to you?

In its grandeur and fragility at the same time, in its diversity and uniqueness.