Dr Heather Ferguson (@hethstar81), University of Kent, will be taking part in Soapbox Science Canterbury 2018 on 23rd June, giving a talk entitled “Me, myself and I: your social brain in old age”
SS: How did you get to your current position?
HF: I always wanted to be a vet, but during my A’levels discovered that I wasn’t smart enough to get in! Back then, A’level options were relatively limited, but I got my first sneak peak of psychology in my English Language lectures where I learnt about child language acquisition, and I was hooked! I studied for my undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Glasgow for 4 years. My ambition then was to become a clinical psychologist, which would have involved another 3 years of specialised training, but this was hugely competitive. After a meeting with a clinical psychologist I realised that I would have a better chance of getting onto the clinical training if I had a clinically-relevant PhD, so I applied for funding, and was lucky enough to be awarded money to fund my masters and PhD at the University of Glasgow. Before that first year was up, I knew I’d found my home in research, and wouldn’t be going back to clinical! After my PhD I took up a 2 year postdoctoral position in Linguistics at University College London (following a chance meeting and job offer at a conference), then joined the University of Kent as a Lecturer in Psychology in 2009.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
HF: Probably my A’level chemistry teacher, Mr Jeal. I was terrible at chemistry (ironic since my identical twin sister is a pharmacist, and all round chemistry genius!), and I didn’t really the subject. But then, in the second year of the A’level course we had to complete an independent research study- formulate a hypothesis, design an experiment, run it, analyse the data and write it up. I LOVED it, and for the first time in two years on that course, I excelled. Mr Jeal was incredibly encouraging, helped me apply that energy to understanding other aspects of the course, and even awarded me a certificate for best project!
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
HF: Generally, my favourite thing about being a researcher is coming up with a question, designing an experiment to answer it, analysing the data and (hopefully) discovering the answer at the end- it’s a very satisfying cycle. Specifically related to my own research I think the most fascinating thing is that I study social communication: how people interact and understand each other, especially how they infer meanings, intentions etc that might otherwise be hidden. I think it’s fascinating because social interaction is central to almost everything we do- we do it all the time, in hugely complex ways, usually without much effort- and yet it can go catastrophically wrong! I want to find out why.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
HF: I already participate in quite a lot of events to share science with the public (e.g. Pub talks, University of the 3rd age links, etc), and I find those events extremely rewarding and interesting. I’m also a firm believer that as researchers we have a duty to communicate what we’re doing to the public- after all what we’re doing SHOULD be relevant to them, and their opinion on it should matter, even more so when our research has been supported by large grant funding or involves members of the public as participants (as my research does!). The format of Soapbox science is very unusual, so I’m interested to see how that works.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
HF: More transparent
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?
HF: Don’t be afraid to dream BIG, take risks, and talk to people (including being nice to admin staff, make friends with fellow PhD students, keep up to date with academics in your dept, and don’t be afraid to approach senior acads at conferences, by email etc).