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One on one… with Katherine Carpenter

Clinical Neuropsychologist and new President of the British Psychological Society.

03 August 2021

One shared value for members
Making a difference. It underpins so much of what we strive to do for impact, by promoting the highest standards of scientific research, of clinical and organisational working, of political influence and of societal change.

One thing from the new six-point strategic plan that stands out for me
Promotion and advocacy of diversity and inclusion within the discipline and practice of Psychology. It would be fantastic if we could alter the perception some people have that the BPS is an old fashioned, white, middle-class organisation with little relevance for them.

One thing psychologists should be proud of
How we’ve responded to Covid-19 – researching the virus and the brain, diverting from the day job into PPE on ITU to help patients connect by iPad with their families, advising the Government, surviving home schooling/lockdown/remote working as well as personal losses. And we’ve collectively put out some helpful guidance in a swift and timely fashion. But there is more still to do, particularly around long Covid.

One book
I was influenced by the somewhat quirky and dated When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales from Neurosurgery by Frank Vertosick. Many of my specialist interests involved working with neurosurgeons in epilepsy surgery, subarachnoid haemorrhage and neuro-oncology.

One film
Doctor Zhivago, directed by David Lean in 1965, though it’s old now and probably looks pretty dated. My maternal grandparents left St. Petersburg in 1917 leaving their first child behind, and walked into Finland to escape the revolution, coming to the UK from Poland when my mother was seven. There are family photos of them in troikas, and my mother used to tell me about her father clapping his hands to frighten away the packs of wolves in the forest, as Zhivago does at their Varykinoe dacha in the film.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Career progression is often not linear. Explore what interests you. Follow your instincts.

One person who has inspired me
Professor Chris Frith, at UCL. Chris supervised my clinical psychology research dissertation on motor skills in Parkinson’s disease. I remember his wise advice to me that it is ok not to know, and the one time it is absolutely fine not to know stuff, is when you are a student or trainee. I always felt my questions might be stupid, or if I was cleverer or worked harder, I would somehow know or remember the answer. I got to notice later that is often only the most senior colleague in the seminar who dares to say, ‘Can you run X past me again? I’ve never been clear how X works’. Something I remind my students.

One proud moment
When I learnt to do a head stand recently! We emphasise parity of esteem in relation to mental and physical health, but I think as psychologists we need to learn to look after our physical well being as well as our emotional health. Balance, stamina and strength are important as we age, and learning to trust your body is exhilarating!

One thing that keeps me awake at night
Climate change. I read that neanderthal man and dinosaurs were both wiped out by pandemics and climate change. Salutary. Twelve months as President is no time at all, but anything I can do to promote members’ work in the area so we influence Government policy I will try and do.

One regret
That my parents never knew my three sons. My mother died by suicide when I was 19 and my father died shortly afterwards. I adored my parents. My mother was a clinical psychologist and passed on relational skills and a passion for emotional connection, and my father was a writer and translator who gave me intellectual curiosity and a love of literature. In 1974 they made a BBC Tuesday Documentary about my father’s bipolar disorder. I remember my mother being worried she would lose her job as a result and have only recently reflected on how much more stigmatising mental illness was then. It must look quite funny now with everyone smoking and the psychiatrists interviewed having long hair and sideburns like Monty Python characters, but I expect the key messages would still be relevant.

One fantastic thing about my job
Clinical neuropsychology is an art as well as a science! You need to flip between a medical model and others, like a biopsychosocial one, combining data from multiple sources drawing on neuroanatomy and imaging, deciding if and when to administer psychometric tests, building an empathic relationship and collating all into a holistic formulation that makes sense not only to the person and their family, but to neuroscience colleagues and to you as well. It’s such a privilege that often within 10 minutes of meeting you, people tell you their innermost concerns and hopes and fears. It’s an incredible area of Psychology!