Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and what being a women in a STEM subject means to you?
I’m originally from Northern Ireland and grew up on my family’s farm with my two sisters and two brothers. Psychology has always really fascinated me in terms of mental illnesses and the effects on the immediate and wider family.
As I learnt more about psychology, I developed my interests in the use of sport and activity in the development of young people. After completing my PhD I worked as a post-doctoral researcher and teaching fellow before gaining a lecturing position at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. I then moved to the University of Chichester where I was based for the last 11 years before moving to Essex in November 2019.
To me, being a scientist in the discipline of psychology is to provide answers to experiences that people encounter. Amongst other things it is about documenting patterns of behaviour and predicting how people interact and change their behaviour. I think that scientists have a lot to say and contribute that can change people’s lives for the better.
Women in STEM have so much to contribute in terms of offering a diversity of perspectives in the lab, classroom and society. We as women in STEM also have a unique opportunity to act as less traditional role models for girls and young women as they seek to make their mark on the world.
How did you discover an interest in your subject?
I like most people am a reflection on formative experiences I encountered and so these also reflect my generation. When I trained as a Nursery Nurse and whilst working in early years sector I had my first encounters with real people with real problems. Growing up as a “Child of the Troubles”, I wasn’t exposed to the same issues as peers who had been raised in urban or border area of Northern Ireland. When I was 17 and travelled to college in Belfast I got to meet students from very different backgrounds and can remember regularly having my eyes opened to the complex backgrounds they and the children I worked with on placements.
Also, at this time, the world became aware of the treatment of children in the care system in Romania. One of our lecturers decided to change a module so we could look at the topic of the long-term consequences of neglect and abuse. This was my first formal exposure to psychological theories and the application to current issues. This provided me with a lens by which I could understand circumstances and more particularly people’s behaviour and since then I’ve been hooked.
What’s your favourite topic or practice?
The appeal of psychology is its diversity. There are so many areas that fascinate mu curiosity, one of my current research projects concerns the benefits of rock drumming for particular groups. I’ve been part of the Clem Burke Drumming Project which is a collection of researchers from physiology, neuroscience, computer science, music and psychology. We have been exploring the benefits of teaching rock drumming to children and adolescents with Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
Collaborating with colleagues from a variety of disciplines provides a unique and rewarding opportunity to understand human behaviour in a holistic manner. The findings from these studies have been very encouraging and I am looking forward to seeing how we can build the evidence base in relation to the role of music and movement for populations with specific needs.
What was your experience of studying (undergrad, postgrad taught, postgrad research)?
I left secondary school after completing GCSEs to complete a Diploma in Nursery Nursing. After working in the early years sector for a few years I completed a Further Education Access to Higher Education course before completing a BSc (Hons) in Applied Psychology at the University of Ulster and a PhD in Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve since completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching.
What other avenues did you explore before joining academia, if any? Why?
When completing my Diploma in Nursery Nursing my ambition was to travel as a private nanny and then return home to work as a hospital play therapist. I worked in Australia and Ireland as a family nanny and a nursery nurse in private day nurseries and kindergartens. A relative and an employer both encouraged me to aim higher and suggested exploring access to higher education courses at a local college.
As I came to the end of my undergraduate degree, a number of academics encouraged me to consider postgraduate study. At this stage I explored Educational Psychology and Occupational Psychology training pathways alongside applying for PhD positions. As my Doctoral studies came to an end I always intended to remain in academia but did try to keep my options open by applying for positions in the civil services.
What does a Higher Education setting offer you that other sectors might not?
Academic positions in Higher Education offer a lot of freedom to determine what you teach and research.
I enjoy exploring the layers of a topic with students across the course of their qualification. Helping students understand the complexities and nuances of topics as they develop their skills in scientific design and analysis is really rewarding. As an independent academic I have been responsible for shaping the type of research I invest my time in.
The freedom to pursue topics that I find personally meaningful is very motivating and I really enjoy talking to other researchers and professionals about potential common interests.
What do you want to do next?
Having just moved to the University of Essex I am looking forward to exploring potential collaborations with colleagues in SRES and other areas of the University. I’m also new to this region and need to spend some time learning more about the health landscape of this area to predict where future research and graduate employment opportunities might come from.
How would you change the future, if you could?
I’m very optimistic about the future of science and psychology in particular, so I think we are in a time of change. Mental health awareness within the general public has risen dramatically in recent years. There is still lots more that can be done to reduce the stigma of mental, to increase knowledge and to support individuals to flourish. My professional organisation, the British Psychological Society is adapting educational training routes to provide a workforce that can meet these needs.
In science, more funding opportunities are given to research that is an active collaboration between scientists, policy makers, companies, organisations and communities. This has changed what we research and the ways we gather evidence. I personally find this type of research exciting as you can see not only how research can be implemented but also shaped through meaningful connections with communities and organisations who directly benefit.
What advice would you give to a woman just starting her studies in a STEM subject at university?
Be curious, an inquisitive mind is a must. Research questions are central to scientific investigation and these often result from your curiosity to know why individuals, organisms or systems operate in a certain pattern or change if another agent is introduced.
Nurture your skills of observation, questioning, reflection and research; these will enable you to hone your research questions.
Believe in yourself, we are often our harshest critic and the very obstacle that holds us back. Science as a discipline is about discovery of the unknown. The experimental and exploratory nature of science means that things may not work successfully but it is these experiences are valuable learning opportunities. Don’t be afraid to try.