This Erasmus researcher got a Veni for her research project called 'Fatal first impressions?'

We’re very proud to introduce Dr. Karen Stegers-Jager of Erasmus MC, who was awarded a Veni grant (up to €250,000) by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The Veni grant provides highly promising young scientists with the opportunity to further explore their own research ideas for a period of three years. Stegers-Jager’s research project is called ‘Fatal first impressions’ and focuses on how first impressions may influence the final rating during an assessment.

Congratulations! Could you tell us something about your research?

‘I will look at the type of assessment in which an assessor judges a trainee – like a supervisor does during an internship or residency. So situations in which the assessor watches someone work in practice and judges accordingly.

‘With a human assessor, biases can occur. Whenever you enter a room, your accent, your tattoo, your crooked teeth, or the colour of your skin – basically everything that we might call a stigma – can influence the first impression people have of you. And it can influence their final judgment, because we know from literature on this topic that people are usually more certain about judgments they have formed quickly. And that people are less inclined to adjust that first impression.’

How did you come up with this research topic?

‘My dissertation was about students who are at risk of dropping out early. We detected big differences between the bachelor, that mostly consists of knowledge tests, and the master, where students’ performance in practice is judged by supervisors.

'During the bachelor degree, students from a background that’s not traditional for university, like a poorly educated or non-western background, and students from more traditional university backgrounds performed similarly. But during the master's degree, where subjectivity plays a bigger role during assessments, the first group got lower ratings.’

‘There are many hypotheses concerning why this happens. One of these is that biases play a role during the assessment. With this research project I want to show that these are unconscious processes that happen to us, but that we can consciously counter. ‘

Why is this research so important?

‘We want people to be judged according to their skills, not according to the way they look. If we judge people to perform less because they don’t resemble ourselves, then that poses a big problem in our diverse society.'

What will your method be?

‘I can’t go into too many details, because my subjects cannot know what I’m looking at. But first I’m going to look at how quickly first impressions form, then I’m going to find out how stable they are. Finally, I want to find out if we can change this by adjusting the assessment tools. Like developing a sheet that allows you to justify your ratings and analyse your process in order not to walk into that trap.’

What does the Veni mean to you personally?

‘The Veni offers me the opportunity to continue research that has completely taken hold of me. Ever since I started researching this subject and discovered the above mentioned difference between students from different backgrounds, I have wanted to know how this works. I really feel that this needs to be researched, it would be such a waste if we just dropped it.’