The Synaptic Bases of Mental Diseases

From science to yoga — and back to science

After initial studies in science, Zeynep Knight-Celen opts for a life practicing and teaching yoga. Ten years later her interest in the workings of the mind rekindles her scientific curiosity and leads her to a PhD position in the Mindfulness study.

Zeynep is currently a PhD candidate in Camille Piguet’s group. She is working on the Mindfulteen project ( (read previous Synapsy article After earning a bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology and Genetics in Istanbul and a neuroscience research experience in New York with Professor Bruce McEwen, where she understood that working with animals was not for her, Zeynep returned to Turkey in 2002 where she completed a master’s degree in the genetics of plants.

“Then I became a yoga teacher.”

She then practiced yoga for 10 years, qualifying as a teacher and giving yoga lessons to thousands of people in Turkey, and training numerous apprentice yoga teachers. This practice gifted her many observations about people: the fact that yoga was not just for the body, but also for the mind; it helps focus attention, makes a person more aware and helps people function better in life in general. This rekindled Zeynep’s scientific curiosity to know more about how the mind was working.

She explains: “Mindfulness is an ancient practice and has been studied in science since the 1970s. In my early work as a yoga practitioner and teacher in Istanbul, I never used the term. We practiced and talked about awareness, bringing attention to the senses, listening, watching the thoughts as they happen … “

Back to Science

Seeking opportunities in Europe, in 2015 Zeynep found a Masters programme in Geneva (UNIGE) she was able to join and where she earned her degree in neurosciences, working under Professor Patrik Vuilleumier. When, at the age of 40, she secured a PhD position to explore the workings of the mind in the Mindfulteen study in the group of Camille Piguet, it felt like a dream come true.

The Mindfulteen study is examining the possible benefits of mindfulness, a practice of bringing attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental manner, on the management of stress in young people aged 13 to 15 years. Changes in the brain induced by mindfulness practices are monitored using physiological data, magnetic resonance imaging, biological markers and questionnaires on anxiety and stress.

Zeynep’s role in the Mindfulteen study is to compare the data before and after the intervention of mindfulness training. This is the focus of her PhD research. At the moment she is analysing the before data. She does meet all the participants, though without knowing whether they are the group practicing mindfulness training or the control group.

Still Practicing Yoga

In Geneva, Zeynep continues to practice yoga, giving one yoga session a week and doing one teacher training each year, over seven weekends. “The weekly practice is like a one-hour meditation for me. Grounding, being with people, is very balancing for me”, she explains.

Zeynep’s stays in touch with yoga practitioners in Turkey and elsewhere through her YouTube channel (13,000+ followers) and her Instagram account (5000+ followers). While these accounts are connected to her yoga practice, she does mention her science pursuits and is pleased to receive questions about a career in science from young women to which she unfailingly responds with encouraging words. ●

by Peter Hislaire

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