Everybody knows a left-hander…nobody knows why they’re left-handed!

Johnstone, EEGLeah Johnstone (LJ) is in the second year of her PhD at Bangor University. She is investigating functional hemispheric asymmetries, in particular determining which hemisphere is dominant for language, and the relationship between this brain asymmetry and the individual’s hand preference. Here, she talks to Soapbox Science (SS) about her motivations to pursue a career in neuropsychology, as well as her passion for accurate dissemination of science to the public. Come and hear Leah talk from her soapbox at Soapbox Science Swansea on July the 5th! You can also follow her on twitter @LeahJohnstone


SS: Hi Leah, very nice to have you on the first Soapbox Science Swansea! We are very much looking forward to your talk. To get our readers to know you a bit more, maybe you could start by telling us how you did get to your current position?

LJ: I decided to do a psychology undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, intent on pursuing a clinical career upon completion. During my third year dissertation studying: “Factors affecting volumes of brain matter”, I caught what my PhD supervisor refers to as ‘the research bug’. I was still unsure about whether a clinical or research career was for me so I took a place on a Masters degree in Clinical Neuropsychology. During my tussles with clinical coursework and my elation whilst designing my thesis experiments, it was confirmed that research was my calling. My most animated lecturer Dr. David Carey gave me more information about what it is to do a PhD, resulting in the discussion of a PhD project together…and the rest, as they say, is history!


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

LJ: The reason I did a psychology degree was because of my brother, who has non-verbal autism. An invisible difference between our brains leaves him built like an athlete but without the ability to communicate, identify threats, understand invisible constructs, or comprehend laws or rules….. and me, cripplingly unfit but with the ability to get advanced degrees in science (and talk until the cows come home). He was the first person to really make me think about the connections between internal biology/the brain and the external behaviour presented, and how delicate and sensitive our components must be.  When considering all the obstacles my brother has had to face I realised that although we have the same vantage point, the world he sees is very different to the one I experience. This interest in individual differences in perception bore my aspirations in psychology. I am both fascinated and entirely inspired by my big brother.


SS: What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

LJ: I am studying ‘Behavioural predictors of hemispheric asymmetries related to handedness’. The most fascinating thing about my work is that it is one of very few complete mysteries left in psychology. Handedness research was extremely popular in the 1980s; all neuropsychologists had interests in laterality, as so much research with stroke patients depends upon understanding deficits after damage to one cerebral hemisphere or the other (neglect, aphasia, apraxia). Nowadays, however, handedness research is considered a bit ‘passé’, although the only reason I can see for stepping back from this field is that no concrete answers were established and the question became one that people gave up on tackling. Why are some people left-handed? We don’t know. It must be the most obvious natural phenomenon amongst our species! We all know left-handed writers, but there isn’t a living soul who could tell you how they came to be left-handed. How exciting is that?!


SS: How did you end up applying to become a Soapbox Science speaker?

LJ: The public dissemination of science is hugely important. With the advancement of technologies and scientific techniques we are uncovering reliable information faster and more accurately than ever before. Whilst it is great that many newspapers/television news programmes offer science coverage, the real take-home message of the research often becomes diluted. The idea of presenting findings to the public straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth is a giant step in the right direction.  Secondly (related to a more obvious Soapbox Science goal), all science researchers are aware of the glass ceiling for women academics. There is no quick fix for this matter, or any one reason we can remedy – but events like this raise awareness of the issue and encourage women not to be deterred by the gender barrier; the Soapbox speakers weren’t!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day?

LJ: Exciterrified (– a word coined whilst queuing for Oblivion at Alton Towers)


SS: Imagine you have super powers, and you can change one thing about the scientific culture right now! What would it be?

LJ: I would love to change the increasingly capitalist nature of science research – although I’m not quite sure how! I think that emphasis on excessive targets for grant attainment and “4*” publications encourages academics to follow trends in research topics, rather than to really find their niche and examine a question that they are passionate about answering. Assessments such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF), whilst encouraging innovation as best it can, may also cause departments to hire researchers based on number of publications in top journals (journals that many fields of psychology are unlikely to get in to), rather than for their use of innovative techniques, methodologies, and all-round ‘good science’. This makes life particularly hard for junior academics chasing the illusive permanent position, and encourages young researchers to ‘sell-out’ on an area they may be really interested in, if they are more likely to get publications in high impact journals (and therefore, more likely to get a job) researching a trendier field. I’m not sure what the fix is here, but it would be nice if there were more positive reinforcement for junior academics to develop stringent methodologies, pioneering analyses, and inventive research questions within the field of their choice.


SS: And finally, what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student such as you, considering pursuing a career in academia?

LJ: You need to decide if you want an academic career as soon as possible after starting your PhD (or preferably before starting), and then do everything you can to make it happen! I think if you decide a research career is what you want then start laying the groundwork as early as you can. Try to get involved in as many research opportunities, conferences, public events, journal clubs, and department colloquia as possible. In my experience these occasions have only confirmed my academic goals and increased my drive to achieve them. I’ve seen many PhD students who will probably pursue a career in academia, but who haven’t come out of their offices to try and experience what a multi-faceted career academia really is – outside of analysing data and writing.


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