Four psychologists elected to the British Academy

Ella Rhodes reports.

Perhaps the UK’s funniest psychologist, Professor Sophie Scott, was among four academics in the field to be elected to the British Academy this year. The national body for the humanities and social sciences recognised psychologists working in a vast array of areas along with 62 new Fellows.

Scott, Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (UCL), well-known for her research and subsequent TED talk on laughter, said she was genuinely surprised to be nominated as a Fellow. She told us: ‘I’m very interested to explore the networking possibilities the Academy will open up, science is always a collaborative process. I was elected into the Academy of Medical Sciences a few years ago and it’s an interesting process that opens up lots of conversations.’

She said throughout her career she has seen those in the discipline progressing from fellowships in the British Academy and on to fellowships in the Royal Society, including Uta Frith. She added: ‘It sends an important signal that people care about the area you’re working in and that you’re part of a bigger endeavour. It’s exciting to be part of that process.’  

Many of these academics, Scott said, had helped her throughout her own academic career: ‘I’ve benefited from people who have been part of these associations, some really use it as leverage to encourage and help other people. Climbing that ladder of progress in academia can be very difficult, and you’ll hear descriptions of it that can make it feel like people are stepping on your fingers. But there are people on higher rungs who are looking to give young academics a lift up.’

In the future, Scott said, she hopes to continue her work combining two key areas of neuroscience. She added: ‘I’m really interested in how we can better understand the way communication systems fit within social neuroscience and interactions, because speech and language are our main way of interacting socially, but if you look at social neuroscience journals you won’t see much about it, the two things are kept quite separate. I’ve been trying to do this for a few years now, but I think we’re getting better,’

Professor Nilli Lavie (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience), who developed the perceptual load theory and continues to study the brain’s capacity and the role of attention in information processing, said she was delighted and honoured to be elected as a Fellow. She added: ‘I’m looking forward to the opportunities this fellowship will give me to communicate, interact, and network with other public intellectuals and have the chance to influence policy.'

Lavie said she hopes to continue to highlight the implications of human brain capacity limits to a wide array of areas, such as technology, health and quality of life. She added: ‘This is a natural progression from my load theory, which I’ve worked on over the years, and in the future I hope to drive the important impact this scientific knowledge has for other areas. But at the same time I’d like to think I can be creative and inventive and can’t predict what other future directions I might start on!’

Peter Cooper has worked in a number of areas in the general field of psychopathology, including eating disorders, anxiety and depression. A major focus has been the impact of adversity on child development, especially maternal psychopathology, where he has been concerned to develop and evaluate interventions to disrupt intergenerational transmission of disturbance.

In recent years he has been working in Africa where he and his colleague, Lynne Murray, have developed a promising intervention for improving child cognitive and socio-emotional development. Professor Cooper said: ‘While I am truly delighted by this award, anyone who knows me knows that all the work I have ever done has been a collective effort which, in a just world, would carry collective reward.’

Professor Martin Eimer, Director of the Brain and Behaviour Lab at the Department for Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, investigates the cognitive and neural mechanisms of visual attention and working memory, and studies face perception and recognition and their impairment in prosopagnosia. He was also responsible for organising the last three research assessment exercises, RAE and REF, for the department and has also served on Birkbeck’s steering groups for the RAE 2008 and REF 2014.

He said: ‘This is a great honour not just for myself, but also another acknowledgement of the research excellence of the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, which was ranked among the top five UK Psychology and Neuroscience departments in the REF. My team and I could not have conducted our work without the fantastic research infrastructure provided by the department and the college, and without the help and support of our excellent colleagues.’ 

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