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Gravitation grant for Berna Güroğlu

‘I could hardly believe my ears when I heard that we had been awarded the Gravitation grant,’ says Berna Güroğlu, professor of the Neuroscience of Social Relations. This grant is awarded by the state, via NWO, to pioneering scientific top research. In terms of grants, this really is something special, even if only for the amount of funding available and the length of time the research is funded.

Berna Güroğlu is one of the primary applicants for the Gravitation grant and, together with her colleagues from five other universities, she is heading the GUTS programme (Growing Up Together in Society). Funding of 22 million euros will be available for a period of ten years for this project that involves large-scale research among different groups of young people.

‘We’re going to ask young people in focus group settings what their goals are’

Innovative research

GUTS aims to investigate how young people and adolescents in today’s society can grow up successfully. But what does ‘successful’ mean? Güroğlu: ‘We’re going to be considering different outcomes, such as wellbeing, academic success and prosocial behaviour. One particular issue is the development of self-regulation where there is a good balance between outcomes for the young people themselves and for the people around them, and between short and long-term objectives. We’ll also be asking young people in focus group settings what their goals are.’

Berna Güroğlu, Professor of Neuroscience of Social Relations

Güroğlu herself will be concentrating on the social context of young people’s development, and specifically their interactions with one another. ‘We want to look at how young people’s social networks influence their motivation and their goals. Let me give you an example: young people who are not very motivated to study may find themselves in an environment with other people who have a similar outlook, and it’s quite possible that over time they reinforce one another’s lack of motivation.’

Güroğlu’s team will be applying a highly innovative method to study social networks: ‘We are going to chart individuals as a part of their complete social network over time. That kind of research is very rare so far. Longitudinal development research that has been done to date focuses mainly on individuals, not on groups of people. Doing this kind of research on groups is very complex. The Gravitation grant enables us to take this on.’

‘They will have brain scans every two years’

Keeping all the balls in the air

The specifics of the research groups still have to worked out, but Güroğlu has in mind a group of first-year students who are studying the same programme. Participants will be tracked for eight years, with their relationships and any changes in them being closely mapped every six months. Every two years brain scans will be made of the participants to monitor their brain development. Güroğlu: ‘Right now we don’t know how young people and adolescents manage to keep all the balls in the air: starting and maintaining relationships, performing well (or not) at school, being popular or less popular in class, interacting with their parents and others. Our aim with this research is to gain insight into how all this works.’

Extensive expertise

The other five main applicants are from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the University of Groningen, Utrecht University Medical Center, Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Amsterdam UMC. Radboud UMC and the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience are also partners in the consortium. Eveline Crone, professor of Developmental Neuroscience in Society at Erasmus University, is the project coordinator. Anna van Duijvenvoorde and Mark de Rooij in Leiden are co-applicants.


In the GUTS project, attention will be paid to such issues as diversity in social status, socio-economic differences and particular behaviour, like youth delinquency. ‘We want to specifically include diversity in how young people grow up’, Güroğlu explains. Anna van Duijvenvoorde, associate professor with expertise in learning and decision-making behaviour, will focus on social and cognitive aspects of learning. This research will be done on a diverse group of young people from the age of ten onwards. She will study the role of self-regulation in school learning, motivation and social behaviour during the teenage years.

The data from the projects carried out by Güroğlu, Van Duijvenvoorde and the other researchers within the consortium will be collected and consolidated. Information on such areas as social behaviour, relations with families and peers, brain development, delinquency and other issues will be amassed and analysed. Mark de Rooij, professor of Artificial Intelligence and Data Theory, is involved in this part of the project. Güroğlu: ‘We will be able to develop predictive models that will allow us to anticipate which aspects play a part in growing up successfully.’

‘Opportunities for a new generation of researchers’

New generation of researchers

The Gravitation grant also means that there will be good opportunities for PhD candidates, postdocs and researchers who are just starting out, Güroğlu adds. ‘This will enable them to achieve a lot in the future.’

Hugely exciting

Back to the moment when it was announced that GUTS would receive a Gravitation grant. Güroğlu: 'It was hugely exciting. I was on holiday and had agreed with Eveline Crone that I would get a call from her as soon as the result was known. Fortunately, she called with good news rather than bad news. I certainly had something to celebrate that evening!’

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