Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize for Marcella Woud

Marcella Woud receives one of the most important awards for young researchers. ©
Marcella Woud receives one of the most important awards for young researchers. © Heike Engelberg
The researcher shows strong correlation between interpretation processes and mental health.

The way we interpret a situation or our future prospects is closely associated with our mental health. This knowledge leads the research of Professor Marcella Woud at the Faculty of Psychology at Ruhr University Bochum: her aim is to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying interpretational processes as well as to develop computerised trainings to improve interventions for people suffering from mental health disorders. She is being awarded this year’s Heinz Maier Leibnitz Prize of the German Research Foundation for her work. The award winners will receive 200,000 euros each, and they can use this money to further support their research for a period of three years. The award ceremony will take place on 16th October 2023 in Berlin.

Biased interpretations

People who have suffered psychological trauma experience a range of symptoms, including intrusions. Intrusions involve reliving the traumatic experiences over and over again, for example in the form of recurring mental images. "Some patients interpret these symptoms as a sign that they will never be able to cope with and process the trauma," explains Marcella Woud. "However, intrusions are part of the natural healing process." Such cognitive biases characterise many mental disorders, including anxiety and depression. "People suffering from depression interpret their future prospects in a very negative manner," says Marcella Woud. "This can be a contributing factor for people to develop a depression in the first place and for the disorder to persist in the long term."

"Marcella Woud’s research makes her both a pioneer and a visionary," stresses Professor Jürgen Margraf, Head of the Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at Ruhr University Bochum. "She was the first researcher to show that dysfunctional interpretations were predictive of the onset of a panic disorder."

Computer trainings have potential

These findings have led the researcher to develop innovative interventions. Together with her team, she designed computerised programmes that help patients to interpret disorder-relevant, ambiguous situations in a positive and functional manner. "If you think in a less anxious manner, you also feel less anxious." Initial studies showed that such training have beneficsl effect in the treatment of mental health disorders.

A second, new focus of Marcella Woud’s work is her interdisciplinary, mechanism-oriented research. Among other foci, she’s investigating is the impact of different pharmacological enhancers on cognitive-emotional processes as well as their psychophysiological and neuronal correlates. Moreover, Marcella Woud aims to systematically evaluate previous research. This has resulted in various review articles and meta-analyses.

Marcella Woud studied psychology at Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands), where she obtained her PhD in Clinical Psychology in 2014. As part of her degree programme, she conducted research at the Universities of Oxford and East Anglia (UK), Harvard (USA), financed by an Elisabeth Frye Fellowship, an annual award of the Radboud University Nijmegen awarded to the most promising and talented female doctoral students, and Perth (Australia). After moving to Ruhr University Bochum in 2015 as postdoctoral researcher, she also enrolled in a training to become a psychological psychotherapist and received her license in 2020. In 2021, she was appointed Junior Professor for Clinical Psychology and Experimental Psychopathology at the Faculty of Psychology at Ruhr University Bochum. As of 1st October 2023, she will continue her research as a full professor at the University of Göttingen.

Marcella Woud was a member of the Global Young Faculty of the Mercator Foundation and the University Alliance Ruhr in 2015 and received the APS Rising Star from the Association for Psychological Sciences in 2018, an award given to internationally outstanding young scientists whose innovative work shows great potential for future research. She has headed an Emmy Noether Junior Research Group of the German Research Foundation since 2021 and is Principal Investigator in the Collaborative Research Centre 1280 Extinction Learning. In addition to her scientific work, the mother of two daughters is committed to improving the balance between family and career as well as promoting early career researchers.

The Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize has been awarded annually by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to outstanding young researchers since 1977. It is named after the nuclear physicist and former DFG President Heinz Maier-Leibnitz and is considered the most prestigious prize for young researchers in Germany. A total of 171 researchers from all disciplines were nominated for this year’s award and the prize has been awarded to ten researchers.