Last week I was privileged to spend some time with a high-school student of psychology, Lucy Purnell, who came to visit me at work for a few days. I have done this once before and enjoy the way it forces me to step back from my day to day tasks (often a lot of emailing and meetings) and think about how my work fits together as a whole. This the blog Lucy wrote at the end of the experience:
For the time I was with Sue, she wanted to show me a quick run through of the processes she goes through when carrying out a study. The start of this process for Sue and other researchers is preparing for the study. I listened in on Sue’s discussion of her grant ideas and strategies with her mentor. At the moment, Sue is thinking about applying for a rather prestigious grant. This means that her application would be even more complicated and would take a lot of time to complete than usual.
Next, I reviewed the ethics documentation for a new study that Sue and her research assistant are going to carry out. For this study, it was quite easy to fill out the documents because it involves children being observed while using an eye-tracker, so I think it easily complies to ethical constraints. However, I can see that if a researcher, like Sue, was wanting to carry out a study with animals or that involved a form of manipulation, the process would be more complex. I also think that, in some circumstances, it could mean that original ideas would have to evolve considerably to comply.
The next stage we looked at was collecting data. We looked at this stage though a few different methods. We created an online survey for the autism and autistic community to see whether the consensus is that answers to the research questions Sue is hoping to get funding for will be useful. If Sue gets positive feedback, it might help Sue in her grant application.
Sue also taught me how to use the eye-tracker. It was great to have the opportunity to use this hi-tech equipment. After using the eye-tracker myself I was interested in how it ‘knew’ where people were looking, so, after one of my days with Sue I looked it up. I found out that the process of eye-tracking is divided into two parts. First the eye-tracker records the eye movements; then it displays them to the user in a meaningful way. While the eye tracker registers the eye movements sample by sample, the software running on the computer handles interpreting the fixations of the data.
Another way I looked at how to record data was by watching videos of parent-child and researcher-child play that Sue had recorded. These videos showed a mixture of children with autism and neurotypical children. The videos allowed to see the methods people use to diagnose autism.
The next aspect of research we looked at was data analysis. Sue introduced me to an image processing and analysis specialist who was looking at MRIs that were being used to investigate underlying mechanisms of neuropsychiatric disorders. I then met the principle investigator for this research, Dr Heather Whalley. She explained to me some large studies she is involved in. First she told me about one which is trying to examine the neural correlates of inheritance of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The other is on the effects of susceptibility genes for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder on brain function in high-risk genetic subjects and healthy controls. From meeting Heather and a member of her team, I realised how interconnected a neuroscience research team has to be due to the multiple disciplines required for a successful team.
Another form of data analysis I looked at was data entry. For a few hours, I entered data from some questionnaires Sue had given out at a seminar she’d been hosting on autism research. I found it satisfactory to finish this task!
I was really inspired by the way Sue tries to make her work accessible to anyone. One way she does this is through writing lay abstracts for all her published papers. Sue thought that it would be a good exercise for me to try to do one of these for one of her papers. This task was surprisingly difficult. Once I’d made an attempt, I went through it with Sue. I sat in awe as she made nearly every sentence even more simple! It was reassuring when Sue told me that it had taken her a couple of years to master this skill. Another way Sue likes to interact on a personal level with the autism community, the autistic communities and other researchers is by having a Twitter account and this website. After teaching me some nifty Twitter tricks, Sue has inspired me to create my own Twitter account which I’m hoping to use in a similar way to her.
To round the whole process off, Sue and I reviewed a paper that a researcher had put forward to a journal. Sue and I both read the paper and then we discussed our thoughts. A lot of the reviewing process is meant to be confidential so I won’t go into the details too much. By looking at this paper with Sue, it was interesting to see how an expert reads a paper as opposed to a non-specialist. Sue and I both agreed that we didn’t think the paper should be published unless it was edited vigorously and then we went through it together, discussing our recommendations.
During the week, I also did a few other things. I went on a lab observation with Dr Mandy Johnstone. Mandy is interested in the clinical and molecular mechanisms underlying schizophrenia and affective disorders. First, Mandy gave me a talk on schizophrenia in general and then told me about her research and job as a psychiatrist. We then went to her lab to look at neural tissue derived from individuals with and without disease-associated mutations and also to look at organoids. It was amazing to see this under a microscope! Mandy’s work is cutting edge, and I was very privileged to be able to spend time with her.
While I was at the Kennedy Tower I went to a lecture by a “skeptic” on schizophrenia and psychosis. Dr James Coyne is a Clinical Health Psychologist and a Professor of Health Psychology, so it seemed rather strange to me that he is a skeptic. However, I then learned that his main skepticism was about hype in media representations of psychology, other sciences and medicine. His lecture was interesting but I, like other members of the audience, wasn’t fully convinced by all his opinions. After this, Sue introduced me to a Ph.D. student and we spoke about postgraduate academic study which gave me some useful tips. At the Kennedy Tower, I also had a discussion with one of Sue’s friends who is a clinical psychologist. It was great to hear more about future possible career options. After meeting these people I felt really encouraged to do psychology at University.
In summary, I had a very interesting and enjoyable experience with Sue and her colleagues. I’m really grateful to Sue for organising everything for me and for being so helpful and welcoming.