Time to think about visual neuroscience

by Poppy Sharp, PhD candidate at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento.

All is not as it seems

We all delight in discovering that what we see isn’t always the truth. Think optical illusions: as a kid I loved finding the hidden images in Magic Eye stereogram pictures. Maybe you remember a surprising moment when you realised you can’t always trust your eyes. Here’s a quick example. In the image below, cover your left eye and stare at the cross, then slowly move closer towards the screen. At some point, instead of seeing what’s really there, you’ll see a continuous black line. This happens when the WAB logo falls in a small patch on the retinae of your eyes where the nerve fibres leave in a bundle, and consequently this patch has no light receptors – a blind spot. When the logo is in your blind spot, your visual system fills in the gap using the available information. Since there are lines on either side, the assumption is made that the line continues through the blind spot.

Illusions reveal that our perception of the world results from the brain building our visual experiences, using best guesses as to what’s really out there. Most of the time you don’t notice, because the visual system has been adapted over years of evolution and then been honed by your lifetime of perceptual experiences, and is pretty good at what it does.

WAB vision

For vision scientists, illusions can provide clues about the way the visual system builds our experiences. We refer to our visual experience of something as a ‘percept’, and use the term ‘stimulus’ for the thing which prompted that percept. The stimulus could be something as simple as a flash of light, or more complex like a human face. Vision science is all about carefully designing experiments so we can tease apart the relationship between the physical stimulus out in the world and our percept of it. In this way, we learn about the ongoing processes in the brain which allow us to do everything from recognising objects and people, to judging the trajectory of a moving ball so we can catch it.

We can get insight into what people perceived by measuring their behavioural responses. Take a simple experiment: we show people an arrow to indicate whether to pay attention to the left or the right side of the screen, then they see either one or two flashes of light flash quickly on one side, and have to press a button to indicate how many flashes they saw. There are several behavioural measures we could record here. Did the cue help them be more accurate at telling the difference between one or two flashes? Did the cue allow them to respond more quickly? Were they more confident in their response? These are all behavioural measures. In addition, we can also look at another type of measure: their brain activity. Recording brain activity allows unique insights into how our experiences of the world are put together, and investigation of exciting new questions about the mind and brain.

Rhythms of the brain

Your brain is a complex network of cells using electrochemical signals to communicate with one another. We can take a peek at your brain waves by measuring the magnetic fields associated with the electrical activity of your brain. These magnetic fields are very small, so to record them we need a machine called an MEG scanner (magnetoencephalography) which has many extremely sensitive sensors called SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices). The scanner somewhat resembles a dryer for ladies getting their blue rinse done, but differs in that it’s filled with liquid helium and costs about three million euros.

A single cell firing off an electrical signal would have too small a magnetic field to be detected, but since cells tend to fire together as groups, we can measure these patterns of activity in the MEG signal. Then we look for differences in the patterns of activity under different experimental conditions, in order to reveal what’s going on in the brain during different cognitive processes. For example, in our simple experiment from before with a cue and flashes of light, we would likely find differences in brain activity when these flashes occur at an expected location as compared to an unexpected one.

One particularly fascinating way we can characterise patterns of brain activity is in terms of the the rhythms of the brain. Brain activity is an ongoing symphony of multiple groups of cells firing in concert. Some groups fire together more often (i.e. at high frequency), whereas others may also be firing together in a synchronised way, but firing less often (low frequency). These different patterns of brain waves generated by cells forming different groups and firing at various frequencies are vital for many important processes, including visual perception.

What I’m working on

For as many hours of the day as your eyes are open, a flood of visual information is continuously streaming into your brain. I’m interested in how the visual system makes sense of all that information, and prioritises some things over others. Like many researchers, the approach we use is to show simple stimuli in a controlled setting, in order to ask questions about fundamental low level visual processes. We then hope that our insights generalise to more natural processing in the busy and changeable visual environment of the ‘real world’. My focus is on temporal processing. Temporal processing can refer to a lot of things, but as far as my projects go we mean how you deal with stimuli occurring very close together in time (tens of milliseconds apart). I’m investigating how this is influenced by expectations, so in my experiments we manipulate expectations about where in space stimuli will be, and also your expectations about when they will appear. This is achieved using simple visual cues to direct your attention to, for example, a certain area of the screen.

When stimuli rapidly follow one another in time, sometimes it’s important to be parse them into separate percepts whereas other times it’s more appropriate to integrate them together. There’s always a tradeoff between the precision and stability of the percepts built by the visual system.  The right balance between splitting up stimuli into separate percepts as opposed to blending them into a combined percept depends on the situation and what you’re trying to achieve at that moment.

Let’s illustrate some aspects of this idea about parsing versus integrating stimuli with a story, out in the woods at night. If some flashes of light come in quick succession from the undergrowth, this could be the moonlight reflecting off the eyes of a moving predator. In this case, your visual system needs to integrate these stimuli into a percept of the predator moving through space. But a similar set of several stimuli flashing up from the darkness could also be multiple predators next to each other, in which case it’s vital that you parse the incoming information and perceive them separately. Current circumstances and goals determine the mode of temporal processing that is most appropriate.

I’m investigating how expectations about where stimuli will be can influence your ability to either parse them into separate percepts or to form an integrated percept. Through characterising how expectations influence these two fundamental but opposing temporal processes, we hope to gain insights not only into the processes themselves, but also into the mechanisms of expectation in the visual system. By combining behavioural measures with measures of brain activity (collected using the MEG scanner), we are working towards new accounts of the dynamics of temporal processing and factors which influence it. In this way, we better our understanding of the visual system’s impressive capabilities in building our vital visual experiences from the lively stream of information entering our eyes.

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Not anonymous enough? Research data and issues of anonymity.

by Carol Robinson, doctoral researcher, University of York.

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Recently, I settled down to enjoy an article by one of my favourite academic writers. It was everything I’d hoped it would be: well written, thought provoking and interesting. It took a new approach to its subject and had a campaigning edge that I sympathised with.  And then, towards the end of it, I realised that I knew one of the people who had participated in the study being reported. Not that I knew them in terms of recognising a type, but that I actually knew them. My first response was one of disappointment. I want my academic heroes to be flawless. My next thought was along the lines of ‘will anyone else know them?’ followed quickly by the question ‘does it matter?’

A quick search on-line resulted in a Wikipedia page that confirmed other people would be able to identify the participant if they wished. The academic had not revealed their interviewee’s age or location, but from the context it was clear that they were referring to a member of a small group and once more specific information was given, anyone with a curious mind and an internet connection could produce a name. From my knowledge of the individual, further details in the article then confirmed what I had found.  Anyone else would be able to identify them, even if they lacked my certainty.

So, does it matter? The article probably won’t be widely read, even in academia, and it’s therefore doubtful that anyone else will do the searching to put a name to this participant. It’s possible the participant wouldn’t mind if they were named, although the author gave no indication that they’d consented to this. The encounter that was described didn’t include anything particularly controversial or personally revealing. If they read it, the person might not like some of the ways they were portrayed but there was no obvious information that could be used against them. But shouldn’t the participant have been assured of anonymity regardless?

Anonymity is one of the things I have to think about in my own research, which is around deaths in prison, two subjects with particular sensitivities. It is one of the hallmarks of ethical conduct, together with confidentiality and informed consent, necessary not least because twentieth century history has too many examples of exploitation and damage occurring in the name of ‘research’. Anonymization arguably has a value in its own right.  Attempting anonymization, even if we secretly admit we may fail, is a way of preserving the idea of academic integrity, of seeking to avoid the exploitation of other people’s generosity that would taint our work. It is evidence of academic vigour. This links back to my initial disappointment that an experienced academic had made a mistake. If the anonymization was ineffectual, were there other aspects of this article that were in some way dubious?

Demonstrating that we have followed the conventions of academic research, whether by correctly referencing our sources or by using recognised methodologies, is part of staking our claim to be academics. It shows a respect for the traditions of our particular discipline, and in the case of techniques such as anonymization, establishes our research as ethically valid. And if ethical validity is lost, it is arguable that other forms of credibility are lost too.

Research ethics committees usually insist on anonymity and confidentiality for people participating in any research, especially vulnerable participants, as a way of protecting them. It is assumed that some harm or loss may befall an individual if their identity is known, if the stories and experiences they share and which become the researcher’s data are in some way linked backed to them as a person living in the real world, beyond the study report or academic article. Sometimes, as in my own research, this is associated with taboo subjects or criminal activity, where there may be very real consequences if anonymity is not maintained.

In seeking ethical approval for research involving prisoners, deemed to be vulnerable because of their incarcerated status, I am encouraged to think through how I will record and store my data in a way that protects their identity. The specific threat is rarely stated. Although it may be poor practice, is failing to anonymise a person really putting them at risk of harm? In many cases, there is perhaps no direct link between a possible failure to anonymise effectively and a harmful consequence for the participant; the information revealed has to have the potential to be used in a way that would confer harm. However, there is often a simple presumption that all people participating in research should be protected, which ignores the question of whether harm is likely to follow from identification.

In all aspects of our lives, most of us share personal information continually.  We willingly offer up personal information all the time, giving our names, addresses and even bank account details to near strangers, trusting without evidence that they will be used for the purpose we intend. We share our views in conversations that can be overhead by others and via on-line discussions with unknown interlocutors. We post pictures on social media, link them to others without their consent, and live surrounded by cameras. Why do we persist in thinking we can anonymise research participants?

Researchers may use pseudonyms, but often a participant’s gender, age, nationality, race or class are pertinent to the research and so cannot be hidden. We can limit access to some findings, but that poses its own ethical dilemmas. And when the research needs to focus on participants from a small group, as in the case of the article I was reading, anonymization becomes so much harder to achieve.

I have experienced this in my own research. Last year, I interviewed uniformed prison staff with experience of working with terminally ill prisoners, in a prison where there were few female officers. The interviews gave really useful insights into the work prison officers perform with dying prisoners but I was painfully aware that the female interviewees may be identifiable by other staff in the prison, despite my best efforts at anonymization, simply because they belonged to such a small group. Even with a wider pool of participants, in a tight-knit world such as a prison anonymization is hard to maintain. Surely we should not abandon useful research because it involves a small group or close-knit communities?

Indeed, should we even try to anonymise our research participants? Most of the time I would say yes, but there are times when far from protecting our participants, doing so actually risks inflicting a harm.  As researchers, we promise anonymity to ethics committee on behalf of other people, who may not wish for it. Very often, participants may have offered to help the researcher because they too care about the issue that is driving the research and want to have an impact on the situation. They may want to have their voices heard, and by extension, themselves credited. When we anonymise them, we keep their voices, but hide their faces. For vulnerable participants in particular, this is potentially a misuse of power. It is a way for the researcher to exert their positional power and claim control. Nicely anonymised, our participants may not even be able to spot themselves in our final reports and presentations. They can’t see how they are represented, and so they can’t hold us to account. There are ways round this, involving them in the production of the final report, but in my discipline at least, few researchers seem to opt for these approaches.

Lastly, I found myself thinking ‘what does one do if one spots that an academic has not sufficiently anonymised their data?’. It is not easy to be certain what responsibility we have when we spot something problematic with someone else’s work. In the case of the article I read, the peer reviewers had been content with the text, the editorial board satisfied and the article is now published. The damage, if there were any, is done and in an age of on-line journal access, probably un-doable.

I asked colleagues, and was struck by two responses in particular, widely divergent but both from science faculties. One, coming from a discipline where the professional accountability of practitioners is paramount, felt strongly that I should contact either the author directly to alert them to the problem, or the journal anonymously to suggest they review their procedures. From another department, a colleague suggested I keep quiet, and not draw attention to the problem or myself. For them, raising the matter with the author would only make things worse. Each response of course reflected the culture and values of the particular academic disciple. In some academic disciplines, where the use of human participants is rare, the question of the quality of participant anonymization may rarely come up. But for many disciplines, including my own, where the involvement of human participants is so often essential to a research project, this is an issue that can occur at any time. Do we as academics have a collective responsibility to revisit anonymization?

 

Commemoration, Inclusion, and Dialogue in 1916 Centenary Drama in Northern Ireland

By: Kayla Rush

The sanctuary of Belfast’s Fitzroy Presbyterian Church buzzed with activity. Friends and neighbours chatted among the dark wooden pews, the columns of the pipe organ soaring high above their heads. The congenial atmosphere felt like the minutes before the start of a church service, save for the Beatles tunes playing softly in the background.

Halfway House

At precisely 7:30, the music stopped, and those assembled fell silent as the lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on the platform in the middle of the sanctuary, turning it into a minimalist theatre stage. A white-haired man walked onto the stage. He introduced himself to us as Philip Orr, the author of Halfway House, the play we had all come to see. He explained that the play is set in 1966, in a snowed-in pub in the Sperrin Mountains. As he described the particular historical setting of the mid-1960s – a time of significant social change in the Western world, and in Northern Ireland the years directly preceding the conflict known as ‘the Troubles’ – the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ began to play softly, and two women joined him on stage, entering from opposite doors on either side of the platform.
In the course of the next hour, we watched as the two women, Bronagh and Valerie, weathered the snowstorm – of which we were occasionally reminded by an audio clip of a howling winter wind – in conversation with one another, a conversation that ranged from congenial and sympathetic to tense and, at times, openly hostile. We soon learned that one woman is Protestant, the other Catholic; one’s father a veteran of the Easter Rising, the other’s father a veteran of the Battle of the Somme.

Parallels and Contemporary Politics

The essence of the play rests in these parallels: both women grew up in Downpatrick, County Down, but due to the divided nature of the community they have only heard of each other’s families, never met – ‘a question of “same place but separate lives”’, as one of the women puts it (Orr 2016: 5).

Both are equally proud of their respective parents’ brief military service in 1916, and both tell stories of national and familial hurts occasioned by the other ‘side’.

Halfway House[i] capitalized on an important historic concurrence: the close proximity of the Easter Rising (24-29 April 1916) and the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916). The Easter Rising is commemorated each year as an important event in the formation of an independent Irish state, and relatedly with the Partition of Ireland. It is associated with an Irish identity, and thus with Catholicism, nationalism, and republicanism. The Battle of the Somme serves as a sort of opposite: it is commemorated as an important event in British history, and is thus associated with British-ness, Protestantism, unionism, and loyalism (see Grayson and McGarry 2016)[ii].
Commemorations serve the present: they harness the past and shape it in ways that suit the commemorators’ present-day needs. As anthropologist Dominic Bryan puts it, ‘The marking of a centenary is an act of contemporary politics… the commemorative practices are constructed in the present, for the present’ (in Bryan et al. 2013: 66).

Female Voices and Cross-Community Dialogue 

As part of my Ph.D. research, I look at one particular approach to commemoration, in which artists, particularly those working in community arts, engaged with the dual centenary of the Somme and the Easter Rising in their work. Halfway House is one of my case studies.
I would like to draw out two key projects that such artistic endeavours attempt to accomplish, using Halfway House as an example. First, the play mirrors a wider move toward more inclusive commemorations in Northern Ireland in the twenty-first century. Commemorations that recognize both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising, and the roles of both Catholics and Protestants in each, have become increasingly common (Daly and O’Callaghan 2007: 4; McCarthy 2012: 430-439; Grayson and McGarry 2016: 2-3).

Likewise, Orr’s choice to write women characters reflects a growing desire to include women’s voices in the narratives told during and around commemorations (see Mullally 2016).

While the stories that Valerie and Bronagh tell are still in many ways men’s stories – the stories of their fathers’ involvement in armed conflict, and of their fathers’, brothers’, and uncles’ pride in the respective commemorations – they also speak of the fabric of their everyday lives as women in the Northern Ireland of the 1960s: leaving the workforce after having children, moving to the ‘big city’ of Belfast versus staying at ‘home’ in Downpatrick, caring for elderly relatives, and so forth.

Second, Halfway House represents a desire for increased dialogue, both between individuals and, more widely, between the two main ‘communities’ in Northern Ireland. The two women model ‘good’ dialogue for their audiences: while they may disagree on certain points, they never raise their voices or interrupt each other, and each actively listens and attempts to empathize with her counterpart. They are ultimately respectful of one another, and willing and able to reflect on their own biases. Neither do they shy away from difficult or painful discussions. For example, midway through the play, Bronagh, the Catholic woman, tells Valerie that the Ulster Special Constabulary, known as the ‘“B” Specials’, regularly visit her family’s home to search their barns and house. She reveals a great amount of hurt at this felt invasion of her family’s property and privacy. Shortly after, Valerie hesitantly reveals that her father and uncle both joined the ‘B’ Specials after the war, and we can see her struggling to reconcile her own pride in their service with Bronagh’s experiences of hurt. The following exchange takes place at the end of this telling:

Valerie: But what you also have to realise, Bronagh, was the fear, back then. Uncle Joe still says you could have cut it with a knife.

Bronagh: The town was miles away from the riots in Belfast and it was miles from the border.

Valerie: But we were afraid.

Bronagh: Afraid of whom?

Valerie: Afraid of you. (Orr 2016:22)

Tellingly to the play’s project, the two characters have an equal number of spoken lines, so that neither dominates the dramatic action or dialogue. One reviewer commented on this phenomenon of ‘good’ dialogue, and the way in which it encouraged the audience to participate in similar conversations, writing that ‘the quality of listening on stage was echoed in the venue’s café afterwards as people sat round and discussed the play over a cup of coffee’ (Meban 2016).

A Major Shift: Re-Imagining the ‘Other’ 

This approach to cross-community dialogue in theatre evidences an important shift in the past thirty or so years. Take, for example, Frank McGuinness’s (1986) play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which dramatizes the journey of eight (fictional) Protestant, Northern Ireland-born World War I soldiers to the Battle of the Somme[iii]. McGuinness, born in County Donegal and hailing from an Irish Catholic background, famously drew his inspiration for this play from living for the first time in a majority Protestant community, while teaching at the (then) New University of Ulster in Coleraine. Grene (1999: 242-245) considers Observe the Sons an exercise in ‘imagining the other’ and encouraging audiences to do the same, as ‘[f]or southern Catholic nationalists Ulster Protestant Unionism is as other as you can get … The play represents therefore a new sort of imaginative reaching out in Irish drama’. Lojek (2004: 77-79) similarly notes that in both the play’s premiere and each of its subsequent stage revivals, Observe the Sons has been heralded as ‘an icon of cross-cultural understanding’, and ‘an indication of increased understanding by Irish Catholics that Irish Protestantism is also part of the island’s culture and heritage’.

What is particularly interesting is the major shift that can be seen between the type of imagining undertaken in Observe the Sons and that found in Halfway House. In the former, the playwright imagines the community that is ‘other’ to him, probing its trauma and writing from a place of empathy. It is indeed a type of dialogue, but much of the work of dialogue is implicit, having already taken place in the experiences of the playwright, though of course as spectators or readers we can choose to dialogue with the play’s material ourselves. In Halfway House, however, the dialogue is physically presented on stage. While we can, of course, choose not to engage with the material in an inner dialogue of our own, we cannot sidestep the fact of the dialogue itself, as it forms the very substance of the play. This great shift, then, is one from ‘imagining the other’ to imagining ways in which oneself – or someone very like oneself – might encounter the other in an everyday situation such as a snowbound pub.

[i] Halfway House and its companion play, Stormont House Rules!, were commissioned by evangelical Christian organization Contemporary Christianity as part of a project entitled ‘1916, a Hundred Years On’ (see Contemporary Christianity n.d.).

[ii] Of course, individual identities do not fall so neatly into these two categories, and plenty of residents of Northern Ireland, including its growing migrant population, do not consider themselves part of either the Protestant community or the Catholic community.

[iii] Dublin’s Abbey Theatre staged Observe the Sons of Ulster as part of its 2016 centenary commemoration programme. This production was staged at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in early July 2016, around the time of the local commemorations of the Battle of the Somme (1 July) and the Battle of the Boyne (12 July) (see Coyle 2016, Hardy 2016).

References

Bryan, Dominic, Mike Cronin, Tina O’Toole, and Catriona Pennell. 2013 Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations: a Roundtable. New Hibernia Review 17 (3): 63-86.

Contemporary Christianity. n.d. ‘1916: A Hundred Years On’. http://www.contemporarychristianity.net/website/1916-a-hundred-years-on/.

Coyle, Matthew. 2016. ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’, Culture Northern Ireland, 30 June. http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/performing-arts/observe-sons-ulster-marching-towards-somme.

Daly, Mary E., and Margaret O’Callaghan. 2007 Introduction: Irish modernity and “the patriot dead” in 1966. In Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’Callaghan (eds.), 1916 in 1966: commemorating the Easter Rising. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, pp. 1-17.

Grayson, Richard S., and Fearghal McGarry. 2016. ‘Introduction’, in Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry (eds), Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University, pp. 1-9.

Grene, Nicholas. 1999. The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Hardy, Jane. 2016. ‘Review: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre’, The Irish News, 5 July. http://www.irishnews.com/arts/stage/2016/07/05/news/review-observe-the-sons-of-ulster-marching-towards-the-somme-at-belfast-s-lyric-theatre-593218/.

Lojek, Helen Heusner. 2004. Contexts for Frank McGuinness’s Drama. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America.

McCarthy, Mark. 2012 Ireland’s 1916 Rising: explorations of history-making, commemoration & heritage in modern times. Farnham: Ashgate.

McGuinness, Frank. 1986. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. London: Faber and Faber.

Meban, Alan. 2016. ‘Halfway House – Philip Orr’s New Play Exploring 1916 from the Vantage Point of 1966’, Alan in Belfast, 19 January. http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/halfway-house-philip-orrs-new-play.html.

Mullally, Una. 2016. ‘Why Women Have Risen to the Top in 1916 Lore’, The Irish Times, 28 March. http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullally-why-women-have-risen-to-the-top-in-1916-lore-1.2588986.

Orr, Philip. 2016. Halfway House. Belfast: Contemporary Christianity.

Researching through Recovery: Embarking on a PhD post-brain surgery

By Sinead Matson, B.A., H.Dip. Montessori, M.Ed.

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Anyone who has had the misfortune to undergo a craniotomy should do a PhD. Seriously. It makes sense. Both paths have similar hurdles: Imposter syndrome – check! Struggle with writing – check! Trouble expressing your thoughts – check! Extreme tiredness – check, check! It’s physiotherapy, but for your brain.

I joke of course, because each person’s individual recovery is different, but doing a PhD has personally given me the space to recover from a craniotomy while still actively working on my career and passion. I was always going to embark on a doctoral degree but in October 2014 (ten weeks after my second child was born) I had four successive tonic-clonic seizures which ultimately led to the discovery and removal of a large meningioma (brain tumour) four days later. When I woke up from surgery I couldn’t move the right-hand side of my body except for raising my arm slightly; my speech and thought process was affected too. Of course, I panicked, but the physiotherapist was on hand to tell me that while the brain had forgotten how to talk to the muscle – the muscle never forgets. I instantly relaxed, “muscle memory! I’ve got this” I thought to myself – forever the Montessori teacher.

Nobody tells you that recovering from brain surgery is exhausting, so exhausting. Every day I had to relearn things I had previously known. Every single sense is heightened and a ten-minute walk around the supermarket is a sensory overload. However, I never questioned the fact that I would start college the following September; in fact, it drove me to do my physio and get physically better. I even applied for a competitive scholarship and won it. I can never explain enough how much of a boost that was to my self-esteem. There is nothing like brain surgery to make you question your identity and your cognitive skills in a profession that values thinking, research, articulating new ideas, and writing. It is like an attack on your very being.

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When I started, I could not have been more accommodated by the Education department in Maynooth University, but in a manner which was subtle and encouraging whilst still pushing me to do a little bit more. My supervisor struck a delicate balance between supportive and always encouraging me to look a little further and read more. I never felt mollycoddled or out of my depth (well… no more than the average PhD student).

Of course, there are challenges. Aren’t there always? It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing) when you cannot process a conversation as quickly as it is happening at meetings, conferences, or seminars; it’s the same for when you answer a question but know the words you are saying are not matching what you are trying to articulate. Submitting a piece of writing to anyone, anywhere, is the most vulnerable thing that you can experience, especially when your language centre has been affected and you know your grammar and phrasing might not always be up to par. Transitions flummox me, particularly verbal transitions like the start of a presentation, introducing and thanking a guest speaker, taking on the position of chairing a symposium, and day to day greetings. I lose all words, forget etiquette, and generally stammer. I forever find myself answering questions or reliving scenarios from the day in the shower!

So, what’s different between mine and any other doctoral student’s experience you ask? Well, I’m not sure. I see my fellow students all have the same worries and vulnerabilities. We all have discussed our feelings of imposter syndrome at various points thus far, our excitement and disbelief when our work is accepted for presentation or publication, and our utter distress at not being able to articulate what we really wanted to say in front of a visiting professor. I do know this: it used to be easier; I used to do it better; I never had problems with writing or verbal transitions before; it is harder for me now. But (BUT) I now have a whole team of people who share my feelings and frustrations. I now have a community who champion my successes and comfort me with their own tales when I have bad days. I now feel less isolated and more normal. They allow me…no…they push me to do more, to believe I could travel to India alone to research; to not let epilepsy or fear to hold me back; to believe that I could negotiate the research process on the ground with preschool children and their parents and not get overwhelmed. They have read papers and assignments for me before I submit them and they expect the same of me. They simultaneously allow me room to vent (and take the lift when I’m too tired to walk) and they push me to be more adventurous with my reading and theory – to take risks I may never have taken.

All-in-all, I cannot think of a better way to recover from brain surgery and all it entails than the absolute privilege of completing a PhD. It gives me a space – a safe space – to recover in. The research process itself has helped me learn who I am again, what I stand for, and what I believe. It has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone in a way that I’m not sure I would have done otherwise but I am positive is vital to my full recovery. It has exercised my own personal cognitive abilities, reasoning skills, verbal and written expression so much more than any therapy could have, and it has given me, not a cheerleading team, but a community of researchers who are on the same journey – in a way.

I’m not saying it’s for everyone – no two recoveries are the same. However, I wish there was (and I did search for) someone who could have told me before the surgery, but particularly while I was in recovery, that life doesn’t have to stop. That it is not only possible to research while in recovery from brain surgery, but that it can also have a transformative effect on your life and your sense of identity; that it will push you outside of every comfort zone you’ve ever had, and it will be exhilarating.

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The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack

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You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.

 

Austerity, women and health inequalities in the UK

by Amy Greer Murphy, Durham University

My PhD is part of a five year research project entitled ‘Local Health Inequalities in an Age of Austerity: The Stockton-on-Tees study’. It’s a mixed method case study exploring the localised impacts of austerity on health. My role is examining the experiences of women living in Stockton using qualitative research.

A few key terms

Austerity refers to attempts to reduce government deficits through spending cuts and sometimes tax increases. Across Europe, austerity was implemented in many countries, such as Greece and Ireland, as a precondition of receiving bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, a major restructuring of the public sector and welfare system has been undertaken since 2010.

Neoliberalism refers to the application of free market principles to public policy. It has been enacted in the UK since Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in the 1980s and has comprised of deregulation (e.g. of the banking and financial system), privatisation (e.g. of bus and rail services) and, more recently, austerity (e.g. extensive welfare reforms).

‘Health inequalities’ refer to disparities in life expectancy and years of health life (‘mortality’ and ‘morbidity’) within and across nations. There is a gradient in all countries – those with more socio-economic resources also have better health (Marmot, 2010). In the UK, health inequalities are widening since austerity began. Schrecker and Bambra (2015) have referred to the process of widening health inequalities and liberalised economic and social policies as a ‘neoliberal epidemic’.

Austerity and inequality in the UK

The UK is a large country, and one of great social contrasts. The contrasts that are relevant to my research are related to inequality of opportunity, resources, health, and the government policies, political decisions and historical legacies that bring these about. The North East has experienced a huge restructuring of its’ social landscape in recent decades. Mining, heavy industry and manufacturing have all but ceased to operate there. The jobs that once provided decent incomes and rooted people to their communities, providing clear routes through the lifecourse and class allegiances, have slipped away. In their place are zero hour contracts in care homes and nurseries, seasonal work in factories and as agency staff providing security in shopping centres.

Through this research process I have tried to understand what neoliberalism and austerity feel like if you’re not on the winning side of them, focussing on gender and class. I’ve then tried to see the wider connection to globalised economies and deregulated financial markets.

Stockton-on-Tees

One of the ways austerity is affecting places and people differently is through health. In Stockton-on-Tees, the gap in life expectancy for men is the largest in all of England, at 17.3 years, and one of the widest for women, at 11.4 (Public Health England, 2015). If you are a man born in one of the wealthier, typically less urbanised parts of Stockton you can expect, on average, to live 17.3 years longer, and more of those years in good health, than a man born just a short walk away, in a more built-up and less well-off part of town. You are also at a higher risk of cardio-vascular disease, obesity, cancer, mental health issues, suicide, alcoholism, to be more socially isolated, have a worse paying, precarious job or no job at all, and to be at the mercy of an increasingly retrenched welfare state for your income and livelihood. The picture for women is similar, but different in crucial ways I will explore later.

This, of course, isn’t the picture for everyone in Stockton; I don’t want to paint a doomsday caricature (Benefits Street, the Channel 4 show, made a noble attempt at that in 2014 with their ‘poverty porn’ foray into life on Kingston Road). Stockton is steeped in a proud industrial legacy, is surrounded by beautiful dales and hills, has a vibrant town centre, and is home to thousands of people of all kinds who are creating thriving and enduring communities. Undeniably, however, government policy is making the lives of an increasing number of its residents tougher.

The research topic

Women face a distinct set of risks under austerity, as their lives, choices and opportunities often play out differently. This led me to develop my research project, to be carried out with mothers from across the borough. I wanted to understand what the experiences are of being a woman living in a place like Stockton – what can they tell us about other similar places that have experienced stark deindustrialisation and withdrawal of resources and traditional routes to employment and social stability? What does it feel like to live through welfare reform, as a mother, with enough money or very little, in an area with lots of different inequalities?

The methods

The research design was informed by the work of Sociologists who have used their skills to bring to the academic and policy world narratives that are otherwise silenced – quite often the voices of women. Berverley Skeggs (1997), wrote about class and gender and respectability in an area of England not so far from Stockton, Ann Oakley (1979; 1993) spent years with mothers asking them what they thought about housework, women’s health and becoming a mother, and Arlie Hochschild (1989) delved into the lives of women trapped in the double- or triple-bind of work, caring for children and elderly relatives. The methods I used are similar to theirs, and ‘qualitative’, meaning they are designed to explore diverse social worlds and understand why certain groups of people or individuals make choices or live in certain ways, or why their lives are presented in a certain light. I had a methodology (system of methods) and sampling strategy (idea of why I wanted to contact, and why). Unlike some quantitative social research or scientific experiment, or the research wasn’t designed with representativeness or generalisability in mind.

I used ethnography, or participant observation; I spent 16 months at a women’s group where I gained friends and mentors and learned about being woman living on a low income in Stockton. I also interviewed 15 women, 14 of whom are mothers, from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and from many different walks of life. I recruited participants through the local Sure Start centres, Twitter, Thrive, the anti-poverty charity I spent a lot of time at, and through snowball sampling (asking people I met if they could recommend someone, or pass on my details). I offered a voucher as a thank-you and recorded my interviews.

Some findings

Continuing austerity and the decline of opportunities: For respondents and their wider networks, there is a huge concern about the likely continuation of austerity and what that might mean for families and communities. We spoke about diminishing opportunity and prospects, the long-term decline of services, the quality and availability of housing and work in the area.

The desire to ‘just be a mam’: Respondents found their roles as mothers and carers increasingly devalued, with the expectation that caring work should be provided by the market and that they should seek formal work as a primary source of income. However, quality work is unavailable, childcare unaffordable, and an important source of identity formation, their role as carers and mothers, diminished under austerity.

Mental health: It became increasingly obvious as I spent more time in the field that the deterioration of participants’ mental health and sense of wellbeing was stark. Discussions of everyday struggles with depression, anxiety and serious bouts of post-natal depression were worryingly frequent. Furthermore, long-term physical health and chronic pain issues were part and parcel of life for many of the women I spent time with, symptoms of a lifetime of stress, poor quality housing and other inequalities (Mattheys et al. 2015).

Conclusion

Underpinning my research is the understanding that women, particularly mothers, face a set of distinct risks under austerity, through labour market changes, reliance on the welfare system and the public sector. They are employed in higher numbers in the public sector, and so more vulnerable to job losses there, and more likely to be underemployed or in low-paid work in ‘feminised’ sectors. They may also face maternity discrimination in their workplace, experience a large gender pay gap and are absent from the labour market for extended periods while they take care of young children. Women also make use of public sector services in high numbers, the very services being cut back during austerity. They rely on the welfare state for many reasons to a much larger extent than men. Welfare reforms like the benefit cap, bedroom tax and sanctions, closures of community centres and privatisation of Sure Starts and lone parent conditionality hit not just women in large numbers, but children and families too. This research is trying to illustrate how austerity is regressive and contributing to growing inequality, and how this group, like many all around the UK, are finding it a challenging time to live through.

References

  • Blyth, M. 2013. Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hochschild, A. 1989. The Second Shift: working parents and the revolution at home. Viking Penguin, New York.
  • Konzelmann, S., 2014. The political economics of austerity. Cambridge Journal of Economics 38 (4) pp. 701–741.
  • Marmot, M., Allen, J., Goldblatt, P., Boyce, T., McNeish, D., Grady, M., and Geddes, I. 2010. Fair society healthy lives. The Marmot review executive summary. The Marmot Review. UCL Institute of health equity, London.
  • Mattheys, K. Bambra, C. Kasim, A. Akhter, B. 2015. Inequalities in mental health and well-being in a time of austerity: Baseline findings from the Stockton-on-Tees cohort study. SSM -Population Health 2 Pp. 350–359.
  • Oakley, A. 1979. Becoming a mother. Martin Roberston and Company Ltd., Oxford.
  • Oakley, A. 1993. Essays on women, medicine and health. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Public Health England, 2015. Stockton-on-Tees Health Profile 2015.
  • Robson, S., and Robinson., J., 2012. Findings and recommendations from interim case study: the impact of austerity measures upon women in the North East of England. The Women’s Resource Centre, London.
  • Rubery, J. and Rafferty, A. 2014. Gender, recession and austerity in the UK. In: Karamessini, M. and Rubery, J. 2014. Women and Austerity, the economic crisis and the future of gender equality. Routledge, Oxon. pp. 123-144.
  • Schrecker, T., and Bambra, C., 2015. How politics makes us sick: neoliberal epidemics. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Skeggs, B., 1997. Formations of class and gender, Theory, Culture & Society. Sage Publications, London.

 

Improving future asthma care

L0040548 Flyer and advert for "Potter's Asthma Cure"

5.4 million people in the UK have asthma, and every ten seconds, someone in the UK has a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. On average, three people a day die from an asthma attack in the UK – in 2014 (the most recent data available), 1216 people died from asthma. Many of these deaths are preventable, and continued use of asthma medication is an important factor in this (Asthma UK, 2017). But many people don’t stick to their asthma medication routines. Kathy Hetherington writes about her research into a new method of asthma treatment which is significantly reducing the risks associated with severe asthma.

My PhD investigates patient’s response to inhaled steroids using novel monitoring technology. I have spent the past year coordinating this project throughout the UK, within the Refractory Asthma Stratification Programme-UK, (RASP-UK). I work alongside Professor Liam Heaney and Professor Judy Bradley in Queen’s University, and Professor Richard Costello in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland. As a young researcher in Northern Ireland I am excited in the knowledge that my PhD has the potential to improve future asthma care.

The Problem

Many asthmatics do not use their inhalers correctly. As a result, they don’t receive their prescribed dosage of inhaled steroid. Within Queen’s University Belfast and the Belfast City Hospital, we have developed and implemented a new method of observing and monitoring how patients use their inhalers. This revelation is significantly reducing the risks associated with severe asthma.

In RASP-UK severe asthma centres we record Fractional exhaled Nitric Oxide (FeNO), which is a measure of lung inflammation. An elevated FeNO is a predictor of worsening asthma symptoms or even an asthma attack. Those who continue to have an elevated FeNO are usually considered high-risk patients who need daily oral steroids alongside their inhalers. This elevated FeNO could be due to steroid resistance, or not continuing to use their inhaler (this is known as non-adherence). Determining inhaled steroid response in a difficult asthma population is a major problem in a clinical setting.

The Intervention

Within RASP-UK, we have established and further validated a clinical test using daily FeNO measurements (using a Niox Vero machine – Figure 2) alongside some additional inhaled steroid. The remote monitoring technology we use alongside this test is called an INCA™ (INhaled Compliance Aid) device. The INCA™ (Figure 1) was developed by Professor Richard Costello in conjunction with Vitalograph and is designed to work with the diskus inhaler. The INCA™ device records a time and date when the microphone inside it is activated, and records a sound file of the inhaler being used; these sound files can then be transferred to a computer. The sound files are then uploaded onto a server via a data compression utility programme where it is analysed by an automated and validated sound analysis algorithm. This combination allows us to create a remote assessment of inhaled steroid response and thus identify non-adherence to inhalers. We then communicate this information to the patients to try and improve their adherence to their inhaled treatment.

With further development, we created a web-based interface (Figure 3) to deploy FeNO suppression testing across the UK though our established RASP-UK Severe Asthma Centres. Here, we examined the utility of FeNO suppression testing to predict inhaled steroid responsiveness after a further 30 days on a normal inhaler. This period of prolonged monitoring provides further feedback on patient inhaler use and technique, using the unique presentation method below, enabling us to identify facilitators and barriers which may be involved in optimising inhaler adherence. We are constantly increasing the precision and user-friendliness of this hardware and software so that the data is easily interpreted and demonstrated to the patient.

asthma3

Figure 3 Data from the Vitalograph server following upload of one week FeNO suppression data and INCA™. The Vitalograph server shows activation and usage of both FeNO machine and INCA™ device (A) and depicts the FeNO data as precentage change from baseline as originally described (y1-aixs figure A).  The INCA™ device time and date stamps the number of inhaler uses (y2-axis – Figure A) and this is shown alongside technique analysis (B). Possible technique errors which can be identified and reported are shown in Graphic 3.

asthma4

The Future

Though we are only a year into our project, 250 patients in severe asthma centres throughout the UK have carried out FeNO suppression testing. Many have gone on to improve their inhaler usage and asthma control and decrease the inflammation in their lungs. We have presented our UK multi-centre data at conferences all over the world and interest in our project is increasing. In the past 6 months I have had the privilege of being a key note speaker at Severe Asthma Masterclasses and Specialist Asthma Meetings. This summer I have been invited as a symposium speaker at the European Academy of Allergy & Clinical Immunology in Helsinki, Finland which will undoubtedly be the highlight of my career to date!

My PhD has given me the opportunity to be able to work with a wide range of fantastic professors, clinicians, patients and co-ordinators. This PhD has convinced me that we can use this unique test and methods of presentation to improve asthma care throughout the world. I can’t express how much this thought excites and drives me; it is with great humility and privilege that I will continue to contribute to this extraordinary field.

This IS ‘proper’ research: Taking on the social science vs. science debate

By: Rosie Smith 

“So why is your research necessary?”

“How do you get funding for research like this?”

These are just two of the many questions that I was asked recently whilst taking part in a competition for PhD researchers at my university. The competition was interdisciplinary and was aimed at showcasing doctoral research at the institution, whilst also providing early career researchers, like myself, a gateway into public engagement. Needless to say the competition was one of the many uncomfortable things I intend to do this year as part of my resolution to be a ‘yes’ woman and challenge myself more.

Finalists were made up of three researchers per faculty (social science, science, arts and humanities), and as a criminologist I quickly found myself gravitating towards the social sciences camp. It was a full day event in which we were judged on a multitude of criteria ranging from originality, impact, accessibility, interdisciplinary scope, and importance. I use the word ‘importance’ hesitantly, as it’s a term that causes particular anxiety when I consider my own research. My work explores the concept of ‘spectacular justice’ and the way the mass media makes the criminal justice system visible and public. I explore this concept by analysing how high profile criminal cases are represented in media archives from the 1800s to 2016.

 

lkhok

And whilst I thoroughly enjoy my research, I still often find it difficult to have confidence that my work is ‘important’, and necessary. In part this is because I am self-funding my research, and at times I find it difficult to have confidence in my work when understandings of ‘good’ research are so closely bound to notions of impact and attracting funding. But it is also in part because of situations like these, when I am forced to contemplate the debate around what constitutes ‘proper’ research.

When I was posed these questions, I admit, I was initially shocked and somewhat taken aback by the abruptness with which they were posed. But at the same time these questions draw on some of the existing anxieties I have as I begin the journey into academia. To me, these questions in some way breach the social conventions on conversation etiquette, not to mention conventions on what is and is not okay to ask a frazzled and distressed PhD student.

To the first, I was honest, and launched into the toils of juggling several part-time jobs alongside trying to develop the aura of a rounded and successful academic.

But it was the question “Why is your research necessary?” that caused me more concern. Looking around the room at the other contestants I began to question whether this question had been asked of the other finalists, in particular the natural, computer, and the physical scientists.

I was transported back to the long debates I had as an undergraduate with my ‘proper’ scientist friends. In these debates I would spend hours defending the position that social science is important and necessary, and that the two disciplines can exist in parallel.

I would passionately defend the position that the relationship between the two does not need to be one of comparison. Admittedly, my efforts to convert them were largely fruitless. And I was often left being endearingly mocked, only to be told that “but it’s not a real science though is it?” And unfortunately this is still a plight I am fighting as I embark through my PhD.

It is as if this debate is a matter of either or. You are either a social scientist or a scientist, with very little scope to dabble somewhere in the middle. This was only confirmed as the day progressed. I overheard the finalist next to me ask a gentleman, “Are you going to go to Rosie’s stand next?” To which the gentleman replied, “I don’t think so, I don’t like social science, I’m a more of a scientist”.

jlhk

Needless to say I tried my best to convince him of the merits of the dark underbelly of the social sciences, but was left wondering why I had to.

I cannot escape the importance of gender to this debate. Despite being interdisciplinary, the competition finalists were overwhelmingly female, with male colleagues only being represented by the science faculty.

Needless to say there are a large number of male social scientists who contribute greatly to the field, but historically the social sciences have been regarded as a ‘feminine’ discipline.

This is supported by statistics on the relationship between gender and higher education degree choices: in 2016, 17,075 men accepted university offers to study a social science subject in the UK, which amounts to just over half the figure for women which totalled at 30,860 (UCAS, 2016). And so I interpreted the questions “why is your research necessary?” and “how do you get funding for research like this?” not only as a judgment on the value of my research, but a value judgment more generally about the credibility of the social sciences as a predominantly female discipline. I couldn’t ignore the feeling that the feminization of the social sciences served as a double mechanism to justify the position of the sciences as superior.

At times I worry that as a social scientist, the rivalry that exists with science, whilst often only in jest or antics, has a direct impact on understandings of what constitutes ‘proper’ research.

And I question the appropriateness of using one set of criteria to judge and compare the value and ‘necessity’ of the two disciplines. In my opinion they are complimentary rather than contradictory fields. And we should be striving to broaden our understanding of what constitutes ‘proper’ research. Because although my research does not find a solution to world hunger or fight disease, it does have value- just in its own way.

At the end of the day the judges seemed to recognise some of that value too. When the scores came in, I won! It was one of the proudest moments of my Phd so far, as a social scientist, as an early career researcher, and as a woman. This experience has taught me many lessons, but the most important is to take the victories, whether big or small, when they come around. Equally I aim to worry a little less about how much impact my research has, or how much funding I attract (or not) and concentrate on enjoying my PhD and remembering that whilst not earth-shattering, my research is still necessary. All research is proper research.

 

 

 

 

“Dr. Kearney or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Impostor Syndrome”

by Eve Kearney

belle

I was at a family gathering recently, when as I was stuffing my face with free, home cooked food, an aunt approached me and said the words that all research students dread: “How’s being back at school going?” Apart from making it sound like I’m back wearing a uniform and taking my Junior Cert again, that question makes me stifle a sigh of despair.  I only started my PhD in English in September, and am still struggling to define what my actual research project will be on, so condensing it to a party-friendly sound bite is definitely not on my radar at the moment, nor is answering the follow up question that always comes: “And what are you going to do with that?”  In short, Aunt Jen, I don’t know how my research is going, and I sure don’t know what I’m going to do in four years with another diploma in my hand and a few more letters after my name.

The past few months have shown me that despite what I was preparing myself for, a PhD is hard.  Sure, it’s not as hard as being a real doctor and saving lives, or starting a family, or moving to a brand new country like so many of my friends are doing right now, but compared to a BA, or even a Masters, it is hard.  Gone are the days of going to class and having your ideas validated, or being graded, or even being able to discuss ideas with your friends – if I want to discuss contemporary masculinities, my fellow PhD friends will want to talk about the Victorian bestseller, or medieval syntax discrepancies.  My supervisor has been nothing but helpful and supportive, but every time I re-read an email draft, making sure it hits the right tone of humour and intelligence, I internally cringe as I hit send, fearing that I’m being too needy or bothering her with my questions – after all, I am a strong, independent, researcher who don’t need no hand-holding…right?

My whole academic career, I knew I wanted to do a PhD – I knew that coming up with original ideas and contributing to my field was for me, and even after I took a year out after my Masters, moving to Canada and starting a new life, the decision to come back to Dublin to work with some incredible people was never difficult. I have been encouraged by countless members of the department that my research ideas are good, and heck, I got As through all of my undergrad, but yet, to this day I’m still not convinced that my thesis is worth dedicating four years of my life to.  Impostor Syndrome is a very real part of academia, and a study as early as 1978 showed that it’s more likely to affect high-achieving females than any other group[1].  Even writing that last sentence made me pause: am I a high-achieving female?  Impostor Syndrome tells me that I’m not, and it tells me that I’ve only gotten this far through luck, or charm, or by fooling everyone around me. Likewise, comparing myself to everyone in the department is a trap that I often fall in to.  It seems that every day, someone is getting a grant, or having a paper published, or jetting off to an exciting conference, while I sit at my desk and try to put together an abstract so that I can keep up.  It’s a real struggle to remember that I am good at what I do, that my research matters, is original, will be a benefit to those who read it in the future.  It feels boastful to say that, but it’s the truth, and I shouldn’t be doing a PhD if I didn’t actually believe it.  I’m only in the third month of my research – papers and conferences will come, and hopefully the feeling of success will come with them.

Wait.  If a PhD is so hard and terrible, why am I even sticking with it? Why do I get out of bed every morning and put in the 9 – 5 on campus?  Because if something is hard, it’s worth doing.  And because I really do love every moment of it. Before I started in September, I pictured the next four years of my life as drinking martinis in the staff bar and using fancy words in conversations with other research students.  While it’s turned out that I’m not actually allowed in the staff bar, and I mispronounce most of the words other people around me are using, it’s turned out better than I imagined.  That feeling you get when everything you’ve been thinking about for weeks just clicks, and suddenly you’re typing a couple of thousand words of inspired greatness is unparalleled, even if it turns out that you end up deleting most of it the next day!  The community I’ve found in UCD and beyond of similarly terrified individuals has been a constant support to me – sure, we’re all quietly competing for publication and funding, but if I’m ever freaking out about something, there’s a list of people I can talk to or grab a pint with, and I know I’m on a lot of lists, too.  The challenge of self-discipline and self-motivation is something I’m finding most difficult, but again, when something goes right and everything makes sense, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth suddenly seems worth it.  And the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that drinking on a weeknight or during the afternoon isn’t irresponsible – it’s “networking”!

I was actually “networking” with one of my friends a couple of weeks ago, an amazing researcher in Trinity working on parasites, and we were lamenting about how none of our research was going how we were hoping.  For me, that’s not being motivated enough, for my friend, it’s none of her experiments going as planned – I definitely have it easy compared to a science PhD!  There was a pause in the conversation, and as I looked around, the thought hit me.  “You know what?” I announced. “To everyone else, the fact that we’re doing a PhD is pretty impressive.  Maybe we just need to be impressed with ourselves?”  We laughed and had another pint, but that idea has stuck with me since.  To answer your question, school is going great, Aunt Jen.  And when I’m finished in four years, I don’t know what I’ll do.  But I know I’ll be impressed with myself.

Maybe.

[1] http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

How your brain plans actions with different body parts

Got your hands full? – How the brain plans actions with different body parts

by Phyllis Mania

STEM editor: Francesca Farina

Imagine you’re carrying a laundry basket in your hand, dutifully pursuing your domestic tasks. You open the door with your knee, press the light switch with your elbow, and pick up a lost sock with your foot. Easy, right? Normally, we perform these kinds of goal-directed movements with our hands. Unsurprisingly, hands are also the most widely studied body part, or so-called effector, in research on action planning. We do know a fair bit about how the brain prepares movements with a hand (not to be confused with movement execution). You see something desirable, say, a chocolate bar, and that image goes from your retina to the visual cortex, which is roughly located at the back of your brain. At the same time, an estimate of where your hand is in space is generated in somatosensory cortex, which is located more frontally. Between these two areas sits an area called posterior parietal cortex (PPC), in an ideal position to bring these two pieces of information – the seen location of the chocolate bar and the felt location of your hand – together (for a detailed description of these so-called coordinate transformations see [1]). From here, the movement plan is sent to primary motor cortex, which directly controls movement execution through the spinal cord. What’s interesting about motor cortex is that it is organised like a map of the body, so the muscles that are next to each other on the “outside” are also controlled by neuronal populations that are next to each other on the “inside”. Put simply, there is a small patch of brain for each body part we have, a phenomenon known as the motor homunculus [2].

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Photo of an EEG, by Gabriele Fischer-Mania

As we all know from everyday experience, it is pretty simple to use a body part other than the hand to perform a purposeful action. But the findings from studies investigating movement planning with different effectors are not clear-cut. Usually, the paradigm used in this kind of research works as follows: The participants look at a centrally presented fixation mark and rest their hand in front of the body midline. Next, a dot indicating the movement goal is presented to the left or right of fixation. The colour of the dot tells the participants, whether they have to use their hand or their eyes to move towards the dot. Only when the fixation mark disappears, the participants are allowed to perform the movement with the desired effector. The delay between the presentation of the goal and the actual movement is important, because muscle activity affects the signal that is measured from the brain (and not in a good way). The subsequent analyses usually focus on this delay period, as the signal emerging throughout is thought to reflect movement preparation. Many studies assessing the activity preceding eye and hand movements have suggested that PPC is organised in an effector-specific manner, with different sub-regions representing different body parts [3]. Other studies report contradicting results, with overlapping activity for hand and eye [4].

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EEG photo, as before.

But here’s the thing: We cannot stare at a door until it finally opens itself and I imagine picking up that lost piece of laundry with my eye to be rather uncomfortable. Put more scientifically, hands and eyes are functionally different. Whereas we use our hands to interact with the environment, our eyes are a key player in perception. This is why my supervisor came up with the idea to compare hands and feet, as virtually all goal-directed actions we typically perform using our hands can also be performed with our feet (e.g., see http://www.mfpa.uk for mouth and foot painting artists). Surprisingly, it turned out that the portion of PPC that was previously thought to be exclusively dedicated to hand movement planning showed virtually the same fMRI activation during foot movement planning [5]. That is, the brain does not seem to differentiate between the two limbs in PPC. Wait, the brain? Whereas fMRI is useful to show us where in the brain something is happening, it does not tell us much about what exactly is going on in neuronal populations. Here, the high temporal resolution of EEG allows for a more detailed investigation of brain activity. During my PhD, I used EEG to look at hands and feet from different angles (literally – I looked at a lot of feet). One way to quantify possible effects is to analyse the signal in the frequency domain. Different cognitive functions have been associated with power changes in different frequency bands. Based on a study that found eye and hand movement planning to be encoded in different frequencies [6], my project focused on identifying a similar effect for foot movements.

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Source: Pixabay

This is not as straightforward as it might sound, because there are a number of things that need to be controlled for: To make a comparison between the two limbs as valid as possible, movements should start from a similar position and end at the same spot. And to avoid expectancy effects, movements with both limbs should alternate randomly. As you can imagine, it is quite challenging to find a comfortable position to complete this task (most participants did still talk to me after the experiment, though). Another important thing to keep in mind is the fact that foot movements are somewhat more sluggish than hand movements, owing to physical differences between the limbs. This circumstance can be accounted for by performing different types of movements; some easy, some difficult. When the presented movement goal is rather big, it’s easier to hit than when it’s smaller. Unsurprisingly, movements to easy targets are faster than movements to difficult targets, an effect that has long been known for the hand [7] but had not been shown for the foot yet. Even though this effect is obviously observed during movement execution, it has been shown to already arise during movement planning [8].

So, taking a closer look at actual movements can also tell us a fair bit about the underlying planning processes. In my case, “looking closer” meant recording hand and foot movements using infrared lights, a procedure called motion capture. Basically the same method is used to create the characters in movies like Avatar and the Hobbit, but rather than making fancy films I used the trajectories to extract kinematic measures like velocity and acceleration. Again, it turned out that hands and feet have more in common than it may seem at first sight. And it makes sense – as we evolved from quadrupeds (i.e., mammals walking on all fours) to bipeds (walking on two feet), the neural pathways that used to control locomotion with all fours likely evolved into the system now controlling skilled hand movements [9].

What’s most fascinating to me is the incredible speed and flexibility with which all of this happens. We hardly ever give a thought to the seemingly simple actions we perform every minute (and it’s useful not to, otherwise we’d probably stand rooted to the spot). Our brain is able to take in such a vast amount of information – visually, auditory, somatosensory – filter it effectively and generate motor commands in the range of milliseconds. And we haven’t even found out a fraction of how all of it works. Or to use a famous quote [10]: “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

 [1] Batista, A. (2002). Inner space: Reference frames. Current Biology, 12(11), R380-R383.

[2] Penfield, W., & Boldrey, E. (1937). Somatic motor and sensory representation in the cerebral cortex of man as studied by electrical stimulation. Brain, 60(4), 389-443.

[3] Connolly, J. D., Andersen, R. A., & Goodale, M. A. (2003). FMRI evidence for a ‘parietal reach region’ in the human brain. Experimental Brain Research153(2), 140-145.

[4] Beurze, S. M., Lange, F. P. de, Toni, I., & Medendorp, W. P. (2009). Spatial and Effector Processing in the Human Parietofrontal Network for Reaches and Saccades. Journal of Neurophysiology, 101(6), 3053–3062

[5] Heed, T., Beurze, S. M., Toni, I., Röder, B., & Medendorp, W. P. (2011). Functional rather than effector-specific organization of human posterior parietal cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience31(8), 3066-3076.

[6] Van Der Werf, J., Jensen, O., Fries, P., & Medendorp, W. P. (2010). Neuronal synchronization in human posterior parietal cortex during reach planning. Journal of Neuroscience30(4), 1402-1412.

[7] Fitts, P. M. (1954). The information capacity of the human motor system in controlling the amplitude of movement. Journal of experimental psychology47(6), 381.

[8] Bertucco, M., Cesari, P., & Latash, M. L. (2013). Fitts’ Law in early postural adjustments. Neuroscience231, 61-69.

[9] Georgopoulos, A. P., & Grillner, S. (1989). Visuomotor coordination in reaching and locomotion. Science, 245(4923), 1209–1210.

[10] Pugh, Edward M, quoted in George Pugh (1977). The Biological Origin of Human Values.