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One on one… with Carl Senior

‘Public engagement is key to survival’

09 September 2016

One moment that changed the course of your career
Days after submitting my PhD I was lucky enough to receive the NARSAD Young Investigator Award to study face perception deficits in schizotypal personality, as well as being offered a position to join the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition at the National Institute of Mental Health in the US. I had to take one and refuse the other. I was in a quandary and sought the advice of my PhD supervisor, Anthony David. I distinctly recall his sage-like tone as he advised me to ‘go to America and become a research monster’. I did go to the States – and hated every moment of it as well – but I am now pathologically obsessed with research!

One thing that you would change about psychology
In today’s psychology laboratory there is often much excitement about a hot new technology that will blow everyone’s mind, and the risk of becoming an ‘instrument addict’ is great. Spanish neurophysiologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal was clear in his disdain for this in his seminal text ‘Advice to a young investigator’. Modern-day science is a social affair, and it is vital to move away from technology-driven silos and towards a truly interactive and collaborative intellectual, social, even physical space. Once we accept the cold fact that psychology is probably the only truly interdisciplinary field that exists, we can embrace the benefits that cross-fertilisation of ideas can bring and avoid the fetishistic worship of technology.

One thing psychology has achieved
Psychology and psychologists are everywhere and are constantly being asked for an opinion on a range of matters. Such social and cultural penetration is largely born out of our dedication to public engagement – there are few other scientific disciplines that can boast a strong movement to effective communication with the public. Yet so much more needs to be done still, and it is important that our graduates see public engagement as part of their core activities. Public engagement is key to survival of our field.

One book
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is an utterly profound piece of writing. He called it a ‘love letter’ to his son, and within the first few lines you realise this is forensic examination of the relationship between a boy and his father.  

One persistent challenge
Higher education is undergoing seismic changes which have ensured that we academic psychologists are under immense pressure. We live or die by our student satisfaction scores while at the same time chasing research metrics. We can be sure that when the Teaching Excellence Framework arrives, the landscape will shift again. The challenge is to ensure that we still retain a common identity under such pressures, and to take the road less travelled and not join the growing army of academics whose days are consumed by administration.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Learn to say no and always do what you enjoy! Don’t work on a project or publish in a certain journal because you have been told to do so – do it because you are excited about it.

One proud moment
A few years ago I delivered a first-year cognitive psychology course and one of the students on that course was significantly visually impaired. She benefited greatly from the Braille printer that the department used to translate all of the notes, etc., but I was struggling to devise a way to demonstrate the various visual examples such as visual illusions. I had just delivered a public lecture at the Thinktank Science Museum so I contacted them and asked if I could borrow the IMAX screen to deliver a dedicated lecture to this one student. It was a long shot and I thought that they would laugh down my request, but to my surprise they took it very seriously and allowed me complete control over the entire auditorium. I delivered the lecture and
due to the massive size of the screen the student could see and experience various visual illusions for the first time in her life. Fully engaging with her studies subsequently inspired this student to develop expertise and a burgeoning career in brain imaging. Cognitive neuroscience is driven mostly by visual imagery of brain scans, but her presence as a ‘Brain Imager’ highlights the need for practitioners to always consider the primacy of the statistics that underlie the technicolour imagery that is prevalent in the field.

One persistent problem
Time, or lack of it! When I think of all the exciting things that we could discover if we had more time to focus on a particular problem…

One alternative career path you might have chosen
Not many people know this but I am a pretty good chef, with an obsessional interest in experimental baking. I was about to start a career in baking until I thought that I could earn more money as a psychologist – what a mistake!

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One person who inspired you
So many – the great Hadyn Ellis was a towering intellect who had such a commanding presence. It was because of him that I completed my MSc in Cognitive Neuropsychology. The other ‘founding fathers’ of cognitive neuropsychiatry, Anthony David and Peter Halligan, really did have a monumental effect on my early days and also inspired me to always do what I enjoyed! Jim Haxby for showing me that you can be very clever and also quite funny! Mary Phillips for clearly demonstrating how you can do everything and still have a life. Mike West, Adrian Furnham, Richard Crisp, etc., etc. for just being iconically brilliant! We are all very fortunate as psychology is so diverse that it brings together so many interesting people under one roof.

More books...
Innumeracy by John Allan Paulus is a scathing critique of the lack of simple mathematical understanding in today’s society and how such innumeracy is often praised. Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Shelby Jr is a brilliant example of how powerful the printed word can be when used to get under your skin. Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street is a detailed ethnographic account of poverty in modern-day America and makes for excellent preparatory reading if you are planning on watching HBOs The Wire. While Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal is still a remarkably modern book.