Dr. Erin Heerey (EH) is a Senior lecturer at the School of Psychology, Bangor University. Her research shows how people influence others with crimes, punishments, risks and rewards, and explains why it is better to smile than to be beautiful. Erin will be standing on one of our soapboxes this Sunday, 12-3, in London. Before the event, she answers some Soapbox Science (SS)’s team questions.
SS: Erin, Thank you so much for joining us this Sunday in London! We can’t wait to hear about your fascinating research. before we start, we thought you could provide us with a quick overview of your career path: so, how did you get to your current position?
EH: I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the US. My research focused on social behavior. After that I worked for a few years as a Research Assistant in the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical School there. Although I had a brief flirtation with another field of science after graduation, I came back to psychology because I think that the research questions that psychologists work on interest me the most. I decided to do a PhD in Clinical Psychology and got accepted to the University of California, Berkeley. My research there combined my interests in clinical and social psychology – I studied autism, social anxiety, social behavior and emotion. After my PhD I moved to Baltimore for a postdoctoral fellowship in schizophrenia research and then came to Bangor – where I have been for the last 8 years examining how the social cues people exchange shape their social decisions.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
EH: As an undergraduate (in the early 1990s), I worked as a “confederate” in a psychology experiment for a semester. That means I got paid to pretend to be a research participant. The study used a token exchange game to examine participants’ prejudice against people with HIV. Each participant was told one of several things about me prior to the game. Although I didn’t know what participants had been told about me until after the study was over, I did notice that they treated me extremely differently – so much so that some of them refused to play the game with me. Of those who did play the game, there were subtle and not-so-subtle differences in their behavior, which I later learned reflected the conditions to which they had been assigned. I found the fact that their beliefs shaped their behavior so dramatically to be really interesting and it made me want to learn more about how cognitions and emotions color the social decisions people make. That experience got me interested in psychology and ultimately, in the research questions I currently study.
SS: What do you think is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
EH: The most interesting aspect of my research is the work I do looking at people’s real, natural interactions. Face-to-face interaction studies are extremely hard to do – they are super time consuming (each one takes a couple years to complete), expensive, and the data can be difficult to interpret. But, I learn something new and surprising about human social behavior every time I do a study. The surprise is so much fun to find that once I get one study wrapped up, I can’t help but plan the next one.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science?
EH: It sounded like a fun opportunity to chat about my work and to hear what people think about it. Because my work is so applicable to most people, I thought that hearing their perspectives and questions would allow me to develop my research in a way that better reflects people’s experiences.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
EH: It’s time to end the culture of glossy journals. It’s true that lots of good work gets published in journals like Science and Nature, but there is plenty of great work published in journals that are less high impact. There is also quite a bit of less-than-great work published in journals like Science and Nature as well – work that won’t replicate or work that doesn’t really advance a field. One finding is not necessarily more or less important than another just because of where it was published. Moreover, because women are less likely to aim at super-high-impact journals, their work is much less likely to garner the career-boosting benefits of glossy journal publication. Instead, a system of post-publication evaluation that links all journals and holds metrics as simple as downloads or likes/dislikes could help level the playing field for all researchers and ensure that the really excellent work in a field really does get seen by everyone.
SS: And finally, what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
EH: APPEAR confident in yourself (even if you feel rather the opposite). Your male colleagues are happy to self-promote, spread the word, network and advertise their own research (even when it’s not as strong as it could be). If you spend 1/3 of the time that you currently spend worrying about whether your work is good enough in promoting your own ideas, people will hear your message and respond. This will open the door to awards, grants, collaborations, academic jobs, etc. Unfortunately, if you don’t promote yourself, no one will – so go sing your song!