New 2017 British Academy Fellows

Ella Rhodes reports.

The British Academy has announced its 66 new Fellows for 2017, including three psychologists, seen to represent the best in humanities and social science research.

Professor Lynne Murray (University of Reading) has carried out decades of naturalistic and observational work on early parent–child interactions as well as assessments of parental mental health problems and their impact on children and parenting. Murray also founded a charity supporting South African parents in book-sharing with their children. Murray said she hoped her election would be useful in terms of its impact for her work as well as fundraising and recognition for her charity.

The Mikhulu Trust, Murray told us, was set up with her colleague Peter Cooper after their joint work looking into the effects of adversity on child development and creating interventions to tackle these issues. Children in South Africa are consistently at the bottom of international league tables. Sharing books with children before school has been shown repeatedly to boost their language and pre-literacy skills but there is little culture of this in South Africa.

Murray and Cooper ran a trial training parents to effectively share books with their young children and saw amazing results. ‘Since this time interest in the charity’s work has grown. ‘We have now trained people in Save the Children to deliver the intervention in an urban settlement in Johannesburg, and people have also become interested in using it for children with disabilities and refugee populations.’

As well as writing two popular books on the social development of babies Murray also carried out some of the earliest work on postnatal depression in mothers and its effects on child development. ‘I recruited women on the postnatal wards in Cambridge and followed up to see who became depressed. I’ve kept that study going from the time the children were born, and we last assessed them when they were 22 years old. I am proud of that study because I think it’s helped give a profile of the difficulties that depressed parents have in parenting.’

Murray said the people she has worked with over the years have fired her enthusiasm. ‘More recently I’ve made links with Italian colleagues who are neuroscientists and work with clinical populations on mirror neurons. A lot of what I do on early parent–child interactions is incredibly relevant to what they’re discovering in neuroscience, so that’s been a lovely new line of work for me.’  

Professor Michael Burton (University of York), whose research has explored the mechanisms of face perception, including exciting new work on how we recognise familiar faces in a broad range of contexts, said it was ‘absolutely delightful’ to be elected. He emphasised that all of his research has been part of a collaborative effort and he was looking forward to chances for interdisciplinary work with others in the academy.

Some of his proudest work, Burton said, had been alongside Professor Dame Vicki Bruce exploring the functional aspects of face recognition. ‘More recently I’m very pleased to have worked with Rob Jenkins on understanding within-person variability. Whereas most facial recognition research focuses on one part of the problem – how we tell people apart – it’s going to be absolutely necessary to understand the other side of the problem which is how we tell people together. That is, how can I tell that a set of pictures represent the same person even though they look very different superficially?’ Burton said it is only recently we have come to understand that each person’s face has its own unique ways of varying. ‘That’s critical for people who know us because if you know someone you can recognise them in a huge range of conditions, whereas unfamiliar face recognition is much more specific and is tied to particular pictures. We still don’t know what it is about faces that varies that allows them to be recognised by a familiar viewer.’   

While much research aims to influence behaviour in the real world, Burton said he was glad to have worked alongside practitioners such as police and passport officers, work that has in turn informed his theory. ‘As we did more and more work with passport officers and police officers we found their problems with face recognition were genuinely surprising to us. Those applied problems we came across when working with practitioners have led to progress in theory as well as practice.’

Professor of Psychology and Education Charles Hulme (University of Oxford) has carried out important research on the role of phonological skills in learning to read, cognitive development and the mechanisms of various learning disorders in children. Hulme said his election to the British Academy provided recognition for his and his colleagues’ work and hoped it would open new avenues for disseminating this work and engaging with policy-makers.   

Hulme said his book Developmental Disorders of Language Learning and Cognition, co-authored by Maggie Snowling, had been a particular high point of his career. He added: ‘I am also proud that I have been able to bring together theoretical work concerned with the mechanisms of learning disorders with research that has developed and evaluated effective treatments for these disorders. I have pioneered the use of randomised control trials in education in the UK and the interventions developed have continued to be used in schools, benefiting thousands of children.  I am proud that several of my students have gone on to have successful academic careers.’

Hulme said he hopes to continue carrying out the best research he can while maintaining high standards of theoretical and methodological rigour. ‘In the days of “false news” I sometimes think we also need to stand up and counter the false claims that are sometimes made in relation to psychological science. There are frequent unfounded claims for “miracle cures” in the area of children’s learning disorders. We need to debunk the claims of the “snake oil” sales people and stress the importance of scientific evidence and replicability.’

Professor Barbara Sahakian (University of Cambridge), whose research explores neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry, psychopharmacology, neuroimaging and neuroethics, has also been elected as a Fellow. She told us as well as being excited and honoured at her election she was glad to see the British Academy recognising the work of female academics.

While Sahakian said her two proudest achievements were her daughters Jacqueline and Miranda Robbins, she added her work with many PhD students over the years and co-developing the CANTAB battery of neuropsychological tests (www.cambridgecognition.com) had also been highlights. ‘An early article of mine and my colleagues published in The Lancet, helped develop the cholinesterase inhibitors for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. These are the current drugs approved by NICE for treatment of cognitive symptoms in mild and moderate Alzheimer’s disease,’ she added.

Recently Sahakian has been exploring how to improve cognition in patients with schizophrenia or depression using the cognitive enhancing drug modafinil, and improving memory and motivation in people with schizophrenia or amnestic mild cognitive impairment through cognitive training using game apps on iPads. ‘The “Wizard Memory Game” for schizophrenia has been made available for mobile phones by the games company PEAK (www.peak.net). “Game Show” was developed through the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre. We are now developing a cognitive training game app for people with traumatic brain injury through the NIHR Health Technology Co-operative in Brain Injury.’

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