Recommendation

This post has nothing to do with research, but I really wanted to recommend something for you all to read.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This short story is one of my favourite books, i’ve re-read it many times since I first came across it when I was around 14 years old. I’m not going to go into what it’s about because I think you should approach it with a fresh set of eyes, but I really hope you enjoy it if you do decide to give it a look.

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High, bye

I read a really intriguing article this week, all about Dr George O’Neil and his quest to cure addiction. I know, first hand, how devastating drug addiction can be – the hurt it can cause. Many people argue that drug addicts are weak, as though they choose addiction over recovery from lack of motivation. I don’t think this is true. In my opinion, addicts can remain in the clutches of addiction for a plethora of reasons. But I won’t go into that.

During Sujata Gupta’s interview with O’Neil, the pair discuss how the idea of blocking the drug user’s high originated, and how it has affected the many patients at his clinics, including Fresh Start rehabilitation, in Australia. First exposed to blockers during a seminar (a young scientist was investigating the effects of naltrexone on heroin), O’Neil set about applying his knowledge to the masses.

“O’Neil’s approach is beguilingly straightforward. Drugs known as ‘blockers’ have been on the market for decades. At high doses, they reverse lethal overdoses, but patients undergo a rapid and excruciating detox. O’Neil suspected that at extremely low doses, blockers could take the high out of opiates like heroin without such a painful detox.”

Initially, O’Neil issued daily pills to patients. However, adherence to the programme relied upon sheer willpower, meaning the individual would have to be highly motivated to stick to the programme. O’Neil had to restrategise. This led to the development of a medical device which can be (indefinitely re-) implanted into a patient. It works by releasing the naltrexone pills at a steadily controlled rate, completely beyond the patient’s control.

Encouraged by the success of this treatment, O’Neil has since developed a similar programme using flumazenil pills to rehabilitate benzodiazepine addicts. However, blocking the highs of drug use doesn’t always lead to full recovery, since the drug itself isn’t always the issue. Drug users may turn to drugs for more than a high. Habit, for instance, is shown to be a particularly potent theme of relapse. Nevertheless, O’Neil’s research has contributed to the successful recovery of many drug addicts, so there’s no doubt he’s doing something right. His PHREEEEE (pharmacology, home, relationships, environment, education, employment, entry into the community, exit to where you live) programme recognises this.

“Why, reasoned O’Neil, would an addict continue taking a drug if it no longer feels good?”

Going beyond the use of blockers for drug users, research is now turning towards issues like obesity, smoking, alcoholism, and depression. But then come the questions. Is it fundamentally inhumane to take the pleasure out of something a person enjoys so much? Is it ethical to make an individual feel emptiness where they once felt joy? Also, could the blockers themselves become a source of addiction?

“Then the question becomes, will it eventually be found to do the same things as the benzos?” says Hulse. “Could it itself be addictive? Maybe.”

Overall, further research will be necessary before blockers come into mainstream use. But, I definitely encourage you to give the article a read because this is a great example of how science can really make a difference to a person’s life: it shows that working in an isolated lab can lead to real changes being made outside that ivory tower.

Let me know what you think!

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Summer

One of the obvious perks of student life is the extended summer holiday we get to enjoy between June and September. Throughout revision I was continually seduced by the long stretch of free time I would soon have: I would be able to read books which didn’t concern my exams! I would be able to explore London! I would be able to put my library card away for a bit! I would be able to brush up on my french skills!

Then, exams finish and suddenly you are thrust into the reality of a long summer holiday. For me, that reality is one punctuated by slight boredom and slight unfulfilment. Just in case you suffer from the same predicament I have compiled a short list of what I like to do during my long summers. Spoiler: I shamelessly use the break to boost my CV and gain experiences which might one day help me get a postgrad position or some employment.

Volunteer

All the things i’m going to discuss are pretty obvious, as in you won’t read this list and be like: “never thought of that one!” However, I think it’s always important to reiterate that volunteering is a hugely beneficial summer holiday activity, and it can sometimes get overlooked in relation to paid work.

I’m harbouring a growing interest in memory, visual neuroscience and psycholinguistics at the moment, so naturally I researched a few charities which work with patients and groups effected by issues encompassed by one of these three. That’s how I came across Alzheimer’s Society UK. Basically what i’m saying is: use one of your interests to help you source a worthwhile cause to volunteer for.

I haven’t started my placement yet, but I am already eager to begin. Volunteering in a local centre will allow me to interact with patients suffering from various forms of Dementia, an opportunity I have not been exposed to before. Volunteering will also boost my confidence, improve my links to the local area, and most importantly: allow me to help people during my free time, rather than just sitting and watching TV or something.

Assist

Earlier this year I was looking at the University of Warwick’s psychology pages (my parents live near to the university so I anticipated a summer spent in Coventry.) During one of my searches I found the Communication Development Lab headed up by Prof. Sotaro Kita and Dr. Stephanie Archer. I’d come across their research before, during a first year lab report on language acquisition so I got in touch with Kita and asked whether I could visit the lab during July.

I was offered a lab volunteer role after a short interview, and so far my experiences have been amazing. Working in a real life lab has given me an unprecedented insight into a life of research. Working with Stephanie, and lab research assistant Amy, has also been a highlight because they’re always so willing to give me helpful advice.

I literally cannot recommend trying to get a voluntary position at a lab enough, especially to anyone who wishes to pursue a future career in research. I’ve become far more vigilant and wise to the realities of a life spent in a lab. It’s also nice to be able to make connections with psychologists you once read about  – it feels like you’re meeting a bit of a celebrity or something!

(Disclaimer: you might find an amazing lab, contact all the right people, and be told “no” – don’t take this personally, they’re probably just really busy or they can’t think of anything they need your help with. Always respond to a rejection by thanking them for their time and asking them to keep you in mind for any future opportunities. Manners cost nothing!)

The research being conducted in the lab is also a highlight for me: they are studying the development of language in children aged around 12 months, so observing the experiment has been both highly informative and pretty adorable. I’ll be sad to leave, which is a testament to the people i’ve met here.

Find out more about their work, and see me listed as a volunteer on their website.

Meet

One of the best things I did this summer was email Dr Susie Henley. Initially, I emailed her asking for some advice because her research interests increasingly align with my own. Basically, her impressive academic and professional background is the sort of thing I hope to one day emulate, so it seemed like she would be the ideal person to give me some guidance.

We then agreed to meet at the Dementia Research Centre (part of the Department of Neurodegenerative Disease at the UCL Institute of Neurology) and during the meeting I got the opportunity to ask her all my random questions. The whole experience was so invaluable.

So, you should definitely do a bit of research and find someone whose career you find inspiring, and then try to get in touch with them. Fair enough, “they might not reply”, so you could feel slightly nervous about emailing them at all. Rejection is never nice. However, they might respond – and you might have missed out on this if you had never even tried.

By the way, I’m not saying email Albert Bandura and ask for third year project title advice or anything, just have a look at your own university faculty and see who stands out to you. Good luck!

Hobbies

Pursue your hobbies with the luxury of time. For me, this involves reading every book in sight, boosting my french vocabulary, exploring new places and catching up with my nearest and dearest etc. The long summer is also a good opportunity to find new hobbies which could be a positive addition to your CV.

Along this grain I am going to try to dedicate more time to adding content to this blog. I also enjoy watching TED videos and the like whilst getting ready in the morning as it makes me feel productive without it being a chore.

Alternatively, you and a friend could try out some random classes or activities to see if any catch your fancy. Yoga…painting…that sort of thing. They might not spring to mind for employability at first, but they will undoubtedly broaden your horizons and give you a different insight into your own life. I think that distancing and recalibrating yourself for a little while can be important, and what better time to do that then during a long summer holiday free of essay deadlines?

Work

My final suggestion, and the one with (perhaps) the most immediately tangible results. You will make bank and you will feel productive, but make sure that you capitalise on your vocation; don’t just turn up, do the task, get the paycheck and leave.

Every job teaches you something, even if you’re making random phone calls, assisting in a tiny cornershop or changing the world. For example, one of my first jobs was in a playgroup: I learnt how to work with children, be patient, coordinate creative activities and be confident when dealing with parents. Then, I worked in a shop: I learnt to be mindful of stock presentation, to be positive and friendly with customers and to take my own initative. Each of these skills will be useful to me in the future. Everything matters.

So don’t be delivering papers on your round and feel like “ugh this is pointless”. Instead, revel in all the skills you are gaining like community outreach, perseverance and organisation! Failing that, read the papers you are delivering and become clued up on current events…that’ll also be helpful.

Happy Summer.

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UCL Neuroscience Symposium 2015

I attended the annual event on the 19th of June for the first time (of many, I hope) and found the whole thing pretty exciting. As it was my first academic conference type event, I was pretty much throwing myself into the deep end. I think I was probably one of five, at the most, BSc students in attendance – everyone else seemed to be really important: PhD candidates, postdoc fellows and those who were important enough to sit in the “reserved seats” of the auditorium.

My two favourite talks were performed by Dr Elvira Bramon from the UCL Division of Psychiatry and Dr Selina Wray of the UCL Institute of Neurology. Bramon, whose talk concerned biological markers for psychosis and how these link to genetics, renewed my interest in the biological aspect of psychological science. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy learning about most aspects of psychology (social, organisational and decision making etc.) However, my true passion does lie in the facts and figures of empirical study. Anyway, one particularly entertaining part of Bramon’s session was when she read us a short excerpt from a letter she had recieved from a former patient who had absconded from hospital and returned to Italy upon being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic:

“I hope you are well. You are a Nazi and a Fascist…I’m not taking the rubbish medication you prescribed”

“I have recently become engaged…my fiancee has bipolar disorder….we’d like to start a family and, given her condition, I would like to know if our children might have an increased risk”

What I found most poignant about the whole situation was that Dr Elvira Bramon, an intelligent and pioneering individual, was being called out because she had tried to help a patient by delivering him a clear diagnosis. To me, this reiterated the idea that patient outreach was not always successful – some people do not want to be helped. I really respond to this sort of revelation because I have a strong belief that the doctor/patient relationship is a collaboration, and that each patient will have a different motivation for seeking medical advice. I think one of the most important jobs for these professionals is to listen. In total, Bramon’s talk was inspiring, entertaining and informative: exactly the sort of thing I would be aiming for if I ever had to deliver such a speech (I really dread the day I am called upon to do such a thing, though).

Then, Dr Selina Wray gave an interesting presentation about human stem cell models of Frontotemporal Dementia. All too often I think that people get confused between Dementia and Alzheimer’s (the media plays a large role in this by using the two conditions interchangably.) As a result, Frontotemporal Dementia, and the plethora of other forms of dementia, can be vastly overlooked. Also, since I am increasingly set on working within a similar research domain to Wray in the future, I was paying extra attention to the intricacies of her research and findings. In an honest tone, Wray discussed generating pluripotent stem cells from the skin cells of patients suffering from various forms of dementia, and then converting these into neurones for drug development. So far, the method has been generating some exciting results, so whilst it may seem a little reductionist, no one can say it isn’t highly invaluable in the fight against dementia. Wray’s openness and interest in public engagement (her lab make their data available to an open access repository) are endlessly inspiring. I would really love to be able to work with her one day.

Along the same grain, a special mention is due to the winners of the Early Career Neuroscience Prize (advanced category), Dr Teresa Niccoli and Dr Sarah Mizielinska. They explained their innovative study of the mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration in conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Using the fruit fly, they have shown that defective proteins and the RNA which encodes for them are toxic to certain neurons. This sort of research really fascinates me because not only are they conducting a highly complex and empirical study, but they are making findings which can directly improve patients lives: now that is life goals right there! I will admit that the animal rights activist within me was slightly uneasy when images of the mutated fruit flies were shown, however Niccoli and Mizielinska reassured us that the fruit flies enjoyed an average species life span (between 40 and 50 days).

I was also impressed by the high calibre posters on display, I took the opportunity to go around and ask plenty of questions during the morning session (where authors were tethered to their posts in case a judge was sniffing around) and then returned to my favourites in the afternoon. Creating a poster for such an event would be a great way to get more involved with the scientific community so it’s definitely something I will be discussing with my future research supervisors next year.

Overall my first symposium experience has encouraged me to attend more in the future. I like the collaborative nature of it all, the community you feel a part of. Research can be a solitary pursuit, so when many pioneers get together it is obviously a source of inspiration for someone young and inexperienced like myself.

I read a quote once about the people you surround yourself with, I think it was something like “if you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room.” I find that so applicable to situations like today because I think that you should always try to learn something valuable from those around you; and when those around you just happen to be leaders in their field, that’s always helpful!

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Emotional intelligence

I recently did a mock exam essay during my seminar, to the question: “Compare Ability Emotional Intelligence to Trait Emotional Intelligence.” During revision I found myself really taken by the idea that our emotional perception may feed into our general intelligence, or at least how we currently estimate ‘intelligence’.

Debated since Spearman’s “g”, our concept of intelligence has always been unsteady. However, recent interpretations of intelligence estimate that it goes beyond verbal and numerical skill. How we understand and adapt to our world using emotion is now becoming a potential facet of intelligence, thanks to ’emotional intelligence’ research.

Presently, emotional intelligence has three dominant theories: the two referenced by my essay question and a third, by Goleman. All three share the common view that intelligence should not be limited to performance on isolated tasks but, rather, should probe how an individual can cope in novel situations. For example, the TEIQue measure of emotional intelligence scales individuals for 15 different factors, including adaptability and emotion control. What is clear is that emotional intelligence research pioneers a new way of thinking about intelligence; beyond classic paradigms which distinguish intelligence as though it is only evident within academia.

Increasingly, emotional intelligence is being utilised during the recruitment process with the aim to establish which candidates could best cope in certain situations. However, should our career aptitude be based upon questions of our emotional intelligence, or, in fact, any questions at all? Of course, observing a candidate in the role for which they are applying would be the most accurate way of determining suitability, but this is not always possible. Therefore, I suggest that emotional intelligence measures should be used to refine the candidate pool, but not as a solid indication of suitability.

Your emotions are your own. Short of actually being you, I can only guess at what you are thinking or feeling. Because of this, emotional intelligence has been undermined by traditional intelligence research circles. Nevertheless, emotional intelligence is a concept which appears to apply internationally, and in many different situations, meaning it is viable and noteworthy.

Overall, my seminar essay caused me to explore emotional intelligence; and I have found an area of psychometrics which has the potential to extend our concept of intelligence beyond performance on a few spatial (etc.) tasks. I recognise the limitations of such research, namely the operationalisation and measurement of variable, however the value and potential of emotional intelligence is undeniable.

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On to the next

I haven’t yet mentioned the fact that I devote some of my free time to taking part in psychology experiments, working with some of the very highly esteemed staff at my university. I also volunteer as a first year research assistant, and owing to the enthusiasm and insight of my current supervisor (Dr. John Greenwood), I have become really interested in the topic of visual perception.

At present, visual crowding is of particular interest to my supervisor and as a result, I have been reading up on the topic extensively. What intrigues me most about crowding is that it is just one example of our brains processing information differently to that which we perceive. It never fails to blow my mind that we perceive so little of our world, despite our belief that we are highly perceptual beings.

Crowding differs across individuals, but those suffering from amblyopia, or lazy eye, tend to have a noticable deficiency in crowding ability – especially in their submissive eye. Greenwood et Al. (2012) details a new experimental paradigm which allows children with strabismus, anisometropia and a mixture of both conditions to be studied for levels of visual acuity, contrast detection, foveal crowding, and stereoacuity. The paradigm, whereby children report the orientation of a Pac-Man like target (using ghost flankers for reference), was used to show that significant interocular differences are present between the samples.

With findings such as these in mind, programmes can be developed which will aid children suffering from amblyopia, and similar visual impairments, in their learning and development. I really like it when science can be used to solve real world problems, and this forms one of my main motivations for embarking on a career in academic research.

In summary, I just wanted to introduce you to my interest in visual perception. I also encourage you to read any of Greenwood’s research, due to it’s interesting and accessible nature. Present research into crowding in those with amblyopia could lead to great advances in our clincial approach to treating the condition, and just think how many lives that would change. I love it when science can make a real, observable difference in someone’s life, and since I have worked with amblyopic children in the past, I am excited to see where this research might lead.

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First thing’s first

It was difficult to decide what my first post should be. On the one hand I could introduce myself, but that’s quite boring. Alternatively, I could start with a huge post dissecting xxx’s research into such-and-such. But again…quite boring. So, i’ve finally settled on a mid point between those two options: an introduction into what I study at university, and an update of my blogging experience up to now.

I have had a Wix blog for around 7 months, but wanted to be able to edit my own blog code so have switched to WordPress. As a result, my first posts will all be reposted from my original blog. So, if you see a post concerning a conference which happened in June 2015, don’t be confused! Accordingly, the following was written when I was a first year…

I’m a first year undergraduate so, as you can imagine, my modules focus on the basics. My compulsory courses include statistics (obviously), introduction to psychological experimentation (a.k.a writing lab reports) and social psychology (a main stay of all psychology degrees in today’s behaviour-focused climate). However, we also get to choose two electives and my choices were a little eclectic.

First, I chose a Classics module, which is very left field considering I have never studied this subject before. I did this predominantly because the Classics department at my uni is world renowned, and the course sounded really interesting. I love English Literature (and did it at A Level), so the mythological and philosophical themes of these lectures suited me well. Also, it was assessed through coursework, so the prospect of avoiding an added exam was pretty enticing.

Secondly, I selected Perception, Attention and Learning; a predictable choice for me as I am someone who enjoys learning about anything to do with the visual system (my maternal family line is punctuated with cases of Retina Pigmentosa, an incurable hereditary condition causing total blindness). This module explored both visual and auditory perception and attention, as well as teaching me about recent advances in our understanding of Autism and Prosopagnosia, among others.

I hope you enjoy, or at least learn something, from reading my posts. I also welcome comments and suggestions: my contact details can be found on the ‘About’ page.
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