Conciliating experimental psychology and family life

Angela RoweDr Angela Rowe is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol.  She completed her undergraduate degree in Applied Psychology at Cardiff University (1996) and stayed there to do a PhD in social cognitive psychology. She was awarded a doctorate in 2001, prior to which she joined the University of Bristol in 1999.  Her research focuses mainly on a) mental representations of attachment and how these bias perception, cognition and behaviour; b) hormonal influences on social and affiliative behaviour. Here, she gives some insights on her career path and her way of conciliating family life and career development


Angela, thank you so much for agreeing to be part of our blog series. To start with, can you summarise your research area and explain why it interests you, and why you believe it is important?

I have various lines of research that are all informed by (adult) attachment theory. Over the years I have researched how representations of our attachment styles influence social behaviour but also how they bias cognition in ways individuals are not aware of. This has been particularly interesting with regards to research we have done where we activate a sense of attachment security and observe the positive personal and interpersonal effects this can have on peoples’ self and other perceptions and sense of self. More recently I have also become interested in the hormone (and neuropeptide) oxytocin. Our research and that of others has shown that enhancing levels of oxytocin improves human social cognition in a number of ways, rendering individuals better at reading emotions in others, for example. The actions of oxytocin may also have potential clinical benefits that we are starting to explore. In fact, this is the focus of the grant I am currently writing.

The research I do is important because the quality of our social relationships is a) underpinned by our social cognitive skills and representations of attachment; and b) has big implications for wellbeing and psychological health. Understanding, therefore, environmental and psychological influences on social cognitive skills can lead to ways of enhancing these, and ultimately wellbeing.


Can you detail your career path?

I did my undergraduate degree and PhD at Cardiff University and came to Bristol while I was writing up the PhD to work with Professor Neil Macrae. I tried not to take it personally when the following year he left!  I have been here ever since and have held various roles as research assistant, temporary lecturer and finally was offered a lectureship in 2005. I have been a Senior Lecturer since 2008.


Why did you decide to come to Bristol University?

I came to Bristol primarily to work with Professor Neil Macrae, a social cognitive psychologist, but also because I was aware of the research strengths of the School and the potential for collaboration. Experimental Psychology at Bristol has a very good reputation but I must admit also to being very impressed by the School’s history. As a social psychologist I was rather in awe of the fact that giants in social psychology had done seminal work here. Henri Tajfel, the grandfather of prejudice and discrimination research – to name just one – was here in the 70s and 80s.


What made you go into science in the first place, and then academia?

In the third year of undergraduate study I did two courses that changed my life and convinced me that I needed to do a PhD. One of these courses was adult attachment, taught by the person who became my PhD supervisor, Dr Kathy Carnelley, and the other was in social cognition. It seemed logical to apply methods from one to the other. I wasn’t the first to have this idea but there seemed to be many avenues ripe for pursuing and I was bitten by the research bug. I also discovered I enjoyed teaching so academia seemed an obvious direction for me. There are a number of academics in my family so I understood the delights that doing research and teaching in a university environment can bring.


Has the fact that it’s a traditionally male-orientated field ever deterred you, and/or how have you overcome that?

No, not at all.


Were there any role models/mentors/key figures that inspired you, particularly any women?

My PhD supervisor, Dr Kathy Carnelley, has always been an inspiration to me. I have learned a lot from many other people also, including my students.


Can you detail any events, activities or occasions where you have been especially supported, as a “woman in science”?

My Head of School is very supportive of all the women in the School and has sent me on courses and mentored me over the years.


Have you encountered any obstacles in getting to where you are now, and if so how did you overcome them?

It was hard to get a foothold on the lectureship ladder but persistence paid off in the end.


What are the most enjoyable aspects of your role?

Having ideas and brainstorming with colleagues and students is a thrill. I guess the intellectual challenges are the most rewarding. It is also very exciting to see students blossom into budding researchers. I hate to admit it but I have also enjoyed some of my administrative roles as these have given me access to people across the university and insight into the workings of this enormous (and previously mysterious) machine that is the University of Bristol.


What are the most challenging?

Ensuring that I make time for writing has always been a bit of a struggle, not least as it feels like writing is the thing that can most easily be put off when times are busy. I am better at protecting time and organising myself these days.


As well as being a scientist, do you have any other major commitments, such as family, and if so, how do you achieve a balance between them?

I had my daughter in the gap between A levels and university and my son just after my first year exams so they have always been around. In a certain sense it meant I was more focused on university work than fellow students with fewer commitments and that can’t be a bad thing. It’s not like I could go partying with my fellow students when I felt like it! At points it was hard to achieve a work-life balance I must say though. I am married to a lawyer and in the early days he had to record every six minutes of his day so it was just easier for me to take the major role with the kids, being the dropper-offer and picker-upper and the one the school called when they were ill. But they are both grown-up now and I can work late whenever I fancy!


Aside from science, what are your interests?

I love the theatre. It was my first love and had I had any talent in play writing or acting life may have been very different. I go to every good production I can and travelling down to London to see a play on a Saturday night is a great treat. I have a very healthy and enjoyable social life and I love getting away. I am a complete Italophile and am not happy unless I get to Italy at least once every year.


What advice would you give to young, aspiring scientists today, particularly women?

If you want to be a scientist then identify the way to get there and follow that path. Persistence is the key. Don’t expect anyone to open the doors for you – that’s your job.


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