What is your role in relation to Higher Degree by Research at the School of Medicine and Psychology?
I’ve been supervising HDR students in both the Psychology and Clinical Psychology and PhD program for the best part of a decade. Upon completion, my students have gone on to exciting and rewarding roles in academia, industry, and professional practice. In 2023, I’m taking on the role of HDR Convenor (Psychology). In this role, one of my core aims is to provide research training – to upskill students in areas such as research planning, time management, effective scientific communication, and resilience, so that they can conduct high-quality research and complete their program on-time – and enjoy the process as well!
What is your research area?
I’m a cognitive psychologist. I’m interested in attentional control – which is how people can focus on information relevant to their goals without succumbing to distraction. This includes visual distraction (e.g., not getting distracted by a billboard while driving) but also distraction from internal things like thoughts (e.g., not thinking about the chocolate cake in the fridge when your goal is to eat healthy). I study individual differences in attentional control, as well as testing ways to improve it. I investigate the role of attentional control in broad array of domains, including driving and expert visual searches (e.g., diagnostic medical imaging), and its role in other psychological processes, such as perspective-taking to understand others’ thoughts and feelings (i.e., what’s known as theory of mind, or cognitive empathy).
What research project are you working on right now?
I always have multiple projects on the go! But here’s an example of one that I’m currently working on (with collaborator Mark Edwards):
When performing multiple successive visual searches, low prevalence targets are at elevated risk of being missed. This has important implications for real-world visual search tasks, such as diagnostic medical imaging (e.g., searching for a cancer) and airport baggage security screening (e.g., searching for a weapon), which are characterized by low prevalence targets and potentially dire consequences of target misses. Previous work on low prevalence visual search indicates that individuals who spontaneously respond more slowly miss fewer targets, and previous aging research indicates that older adults typically respond more slowly across multiple task contexts. Synthesizing these two separate lines of research, here we tested whether this would therefore translate into a performance benefit for older adults in low prevalence visual search. Across two experiments, we found that older adults were consistently unimpaired at this task, and in some circumstances could even outperform younger adults. These findings challenge theoretical models that propose wholesale decline in top-down attentional processes as a function of ageing.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you started your PhD?
It’s easy to look back and think, I wish I’d known X, or I wish I’d done Y differently. But as with many things in life, when we talk about experience (e.g., being an experienced researcher), what we really mean is that you have had ample opportunity to learn from mistakes as well as successes. You can’t know everything from the beginning, so I recommend being open to this learning, and taking the time to reflect on your experience so you can benefit from it.
If I could have given myself one pearl of wisdom back when I started my PhD, it would be – seek advice and role models from a variety of sources, think critically about advice that you’re given and where it comes from, and ultimately learn to trust your own judgement.