Marleen ter Avest

Marleen J. ter Avest – Radboudumc 15 October 2020

Hi, I’m Marleen ter Avest (31), raised and still living in Amsterdam. Currently, I’m finishing-up my PhD on the working mechanisms of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living (MBCL) in people with recurrent depression. I’m affiliated at the Radboudumc department of Psychiatry, subdepartment Center for Mindfulness, theme Stress-related disorders.

Where do you live and with whom?

I’m living in a quiet area in the North of Amsterdam in a 3-room apartment with garden.

When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up? Can you tell us something about your child years?

I grew up in a safe and quiet environment in the North of Amsterdam, together with my parents and younger sister, which made me the ‘responsible’ one. At the age of 6, I started to play the piano, which I still love to do. During primary and secondary school, equality and fairness were important values, which strongly shaped the person I am today. My previous ambition to become a professional pianist, soon changed into the desire to help others and make the world a more peaceful place to live in. I considered various professions (e.g., lawyer, doctor) but eventually I ended up being a psychologist.

What was your previous academic training, where did you study and why did you choose that study/those studies?

Right after high school I started Medicine at the Free University of Amsterdam at the age of 17. However, after my bachelors during the clinical internships, I realized that I was less driven by ‘making people better again’, but more by ‘helping people dealing better with whatever they are facing in life’. I firmly decided to switch to Psychology -sorry mom and dad-, and this is where it all began. Practicing mindfulness helped me to make this decision consciously by getting more in touch with my feelings and desires, and by becoming less affected by other people’s opinions. Back then, I was not yet aware to what extent mindfulness was going to affect my life.

Of which of your research discoveries, you are most proud of?

In one of our research projects we investigated for whom MBCT is more beneficial than treatment-as-usual (TAU) in people with (recurrent) depression. We combined individual patient data from three RCTs investigating the effectiveness of MBCT in (partially) remitted and chronically depressed patients. Subsequently, we used the Qualitative Interaction Tree (QUINT) method to develop a decision tree, which, when replicated in future studies, could be used in clinical practice. Our main findings were that people who ruminate more and had their first major depressive episode at an early age, may benefit more from MBCT than TAU. In addition, this was the case for people with lower levels of quality of life at baseline.

What is your most important scientific challenge in the coming 5 years?

To date, most research has been done into the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in various clinical and non-clinical samples. Now, we face an area in which the challenge is to find out how and for whom MBIs work best. For this, more complex analyzing techniques are needed (e.g., machine learning, computational modelling). In addition, closer collaborations between (neuro)biological and psychological research groups could uplift this scientific field drastically.

On a more personal level, the challenge for the upcoming years is to find a way to combine conducting mindfulness and compassion research with teaching and training mindfulness and compassion to others (

If you could choose any mentor, who would this be?

Thupten Jinpa. During my first encounter with him I got grasped by his knowledge and embodiment of compassion. I’m inspired by the way he combines his practical experience (being a former monk), and his educational and scientific background (B.A. in Western Philosophy and PhD in Religious studies) to foster dialogues between the Buddhist tradition and Western science.

What is your favorite topic: molecules – patients – population?

I would say population, with preferably the focus on prevention rather than cure.

What should be changed / improved in the scientific community?

In general, further developing mindfulness and compassion skills among researchers can benefit the scientific community (e.g., becoming less reactive, short-sighted, and more open-minded, curious, inclusive and generous). In addition, it may foster the important recent organizational changes that have started to take place from a focus on scientific quantity to quality (e.g., being less influenced by hierarchy and money/prestige-driven incentives).

Is there anything we can wake you up for in the middle of the night?

In case of emergencies, if someone really feels the need to connect, or world peace. Otherwise, it’s probably better to let me sleep and enjoy a good night’s rest.

What is the thing that irritates you most?

Unfairness, inequality and a judging mind (limiting open and objective perspective taking). However, being irritated does not bring you nor others anything. It’s important to acknowledge the irritation and focus on the underlying desire, so you can use it as a driving force to change things for the better.

Who would you like to have dinner with, if you had the chance?

Easy: with the dalai lama. However, if I’m allowed to be a bit more unrealistic and creative: I would have loved to play the piano together with, and learn from, Frédéric Chopin.

How do you relax from the demanding job being a scientist?

By reconnecting with nature (i.e. long walks, running), and playing the piano or visit a classical music concert -alone-.

Do you have a tip for our most junior scientists?

Take your time to find something that really internally motivates you, and within the process of doing what you love: stay close to yourself and your own values. In addition, don’t take critical feedback or a rejection of a paper personally. Unfortunately, this is part of the process of doing research. Moreover, don’t hesitate to ask for help, and, most importantly, celebrate every milestone, no matter how big or small!

Please add a photo which represents a remarkable event or experience you were part of? Please explain.

Starting with my grandparents, our family regularly supported different projects in South India. We have travelled there a few times now, and this always inspired me to be grateful for what we have and to do good in live. This picture was taken in an elderly home, which was made possible by efforts from, among others, my grandfather. FYI: elderly homes generally do not exist there, elderly are most often taken care of by their family, but if this is not the case, they are bound to be out on the streets.  

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