Working life: Susan Gathercole
Professor Susan Gathercole is the Director of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. Here she tells us about her working life, from her roots in psychology to the unit’s high-tech kit.
There’s something rather special about being an MRC director. You need to know what everybody’s doing and they need your support and direction. We have a very close and productive community, a place that doesn’t have much regard for hierarchy; I’m completely in support of that.
I decided to study psychology after attending a lunchtime lecture in my sixth form on Freud, in the days before it was routinely taught in schools. Understanding our mental lives seemed much more interesting and relevant than any subjects I’d studied before. I was fortunate to get into a degree course in psychology that had just started at York University, and was taught by young and inspiring lecturers.
The field of psychology that still engages me most, 35 years after graduating, is cognition. For me it’s the heart of the discipline, focusing on the processes and systems involved in the higher mental processes that are central to adaptable human behaviour. Research has been transformed in the past 15 years by the development of cognitive neuroscience methods that enable us to understand how cognition is embedded the brain.
My particular interests are in the areas of memory, attention, language and learning. I investigate how these systems operate during childhood, the period of life when learning is most vital. Much of our work focuses on how these can go wrong during development, leading to difficulties in reading, mathematics, language and attention control. The ultimate goal is to improve children’s outcomes by developing interventions and effective methods of educational support.
We observe children in the classroom, develop robust methods to identify the nature of underlying problems, conduct experiments to understand the cognitive processes and use new methods to intervene. To do this, we work closely alongside other professionals, such as specialist teachers, speech and language therapists, educational psychologists and paediatricians.
An exciting development this year is that we set up a research clinic to assess cognitive skills of children with a range of specific learning difficulties. Using brain scanning and genetic methods, we aim to build up a picture of how cognition and behaviour fit together in common patterns, across what are traditionally thought of as different disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.
The CBSU (previously the Applied Psychology Unit) is a very special place to do this research, with a history spanning nearly 70 years of ground-breaking research on cognition. It’s a unique place to work — we’re in a beautiful Georgian house close to central Cambridge with lovely gardens. History has it that the first director of the unit, a university employee, personally bought this house and then informed the MRC they needed to reimburse him the price!
The building may look traditional from the front, but we’ve got highly specialised facilities on site. A state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine looks at the fine-grained structure of the brain, and a magnetoencephalography (MEG) facility gives us the precise temporal resolution needed to understand how brain activity changes millisecond by millisecond. Combining these techniques, we get a really good set of insights into how the brain works.
My day-to-day work is a mix of research and administration, as well as strategic thinking and direction. A lot of my time is spent liaising with people within and outside Cambridge, finding ways to move forward that go beyond the unit; a very exciting prospect. Protecting my time for research is probably the biggest challenge.
The most pleasurable activity for me is writing. I really love crafting written language to convey findings and ideas in a simple way. A few years ago I wrote a practical guide for teachers, as a lot of what I do is relevant to the classroom. I wanted to write a book that wasn’t clogged up with academic language and references. I wrote it in eight weeks and could think of nothing else; it was quite a relief to finish it.
Being an academic provides a degree of flexibility you won’t find in many other professions. I’ve got five children, aged between 13 and 27. To succeed in this career, you have to be prepared to make firm decisions about what you can and can’t do, and the time you will put to it.
The highlight of my career has undoubtedly been coming back to the CBSU as director. I was contacted to suggest potential candidates for the position by the head hunter, without being asked if I was interested in applying myself! But encouraged by others, I applied anyway. It has meant that I can play a role in preserving the core values of the CBSU: understand cognition, use the highest quality methods guided by innovative theory, and try to make a difference.
As told to Isabel Baker.
A version of this article was first published in the Spring 2014 issue of Network magazine.