Photo:

Tim Fosker

oh no I completely missed a chat :-( I’m so sorry Lathallan School class S5!

Favourite Thing: Programming my computer to analyse data I wouldn’t be able to do by hand and seeing the results of that analysis. Seeing the results of a study that will hopefully answer a question you have is very exciting.

My CV

School:

I moved around primary schools, but I went to Belfairs High School in Essex from September 1991 to June 1996.

University:

I studied Psychology (BSc and PhD) close to the mountains of North Wales at Bangor University from 1998-2005.

Work History:

I worked as a research associate at the University of Cambridge in the Centre for Neuroscience in Education from 2005-2009.

Employer:

Queen’s University Belfast.

Current Job:

I’m a lecturer in developmental psychology.

Me and my work

I measure the electricity produced by children’s brains to discover how children understand speech and learn to read.

I’m a developmental psychologist, which means I research how people develop certain behaviours. Developmental psychologists can be interested in how behaviours change at any age, but most study children.

I’m interested in understanding how children learn language. Much of my current work focuses on discovering which sounds in speech are most important to listen to if you want to learn to read. You may think that since you use your eyes to read and not your ears that you don’t need to listen to sounds in speech at all. In fact psychologists have known for some time that your ability to read comes from learning how letters relate to spoken sounds. It is this ability that allows children and adults to read words that they have never seen before, by sounding them out. Unfortunately English doesn’t make reading particularly easy, as we have words that don’t fit any simple rules. For example you know that the ‘-int’ in mint, tint, flint, glint are all said the same way, but the ‘-int’ in pint is said differently.

One of the questions I have been trying to answer is how we store the sounds of speech in our brains. Every time we say a word we say it slightly differently, so it is difficult to understand how we know that quite different sounds represent the same word. As we get older the way that adults talk to us changes and so the sounds that we use to understand language also change. I’m sure you’ve all noticed how you speak to babies in a very different way to other people your own age, this is called ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’. The rhythmic pattern in your voice when you speak to babies is very important in helping them learn to speak. Although you have probably never noticed it, speech doesn’t have pauses in it like the spaces between words in sentences, so the rhythmic patterns in language are one way babies can decide when one word ends and another one starts. We’ve found that listening to changes in sounds present in the rhythmic patterns of speech (called prosody) also seem to be important for learning to read.  

Chemists can’t ask elements how they’re involved in chemical reactions, but I could ask children how they store words in their brains and what sounds they use to decide what words they hear, but unfortunately they don’t know. Because we learn to speak without much effort, we need to find ways to study how language develops that doesn’t involve just asking children what they think. The technique I use is to measure electrical activity produced by the brain using a cap placed on the head; this is called EEG (electroencephalography). When your brain is working normally you are thinking about loads of things at the same time, so we present children with experiments where they listen to speech or sound changes lots of times. The differences in brain activity that happen when you’re reacting to a sound must be because of your brain doing that task rather than anything else, because all the other things you’re thinking about change throughout the experiment.

My Typical Day

No day is ever the same, but most days involve quite a bit of time at my computer, in the lab or meeting with my research students.

As a lecturer my time is split between teaching university students and working on research. As I’m sure your teacher will tell you, teaching isn’t just about the time in the classroom, but the time it takes to prepare all the work for class. A typical day will often involve some teaching related activity including marking or supervision.

Teaching university students requires you to spend time learning about the most recent developments in the areas you teach and this greatly benefits your research. If you don’t know much about what has been done before, then it is difficult to know what questions still need answering.

When I’m not teaching I work on research projects with my students. During term time I meet with all my research students at least once a week to discuss how their projects are going. Days when I am not meeting with my students we keep in contact by email. Many of my students need to learn how to use the technology that measures children’s electrical brain activity, so I still spend a lot of time in the lab training people.

The most important part of research is writing-up and presenting the results of your experiments, either for other scientists or the general public. This means that most days require analysing data and writing something about the work I am doing. Sometimes I even travel to present my work at conferences to other scientists. So I can be away from the office for periods of time. Of course the research doesn’t stop while I’m away, so email and Skype allow me to keep in contact with my students.

What I'd do with the money

I’d like to use the money to create a series of short animated movies that explain the process of measuring children’s electrical brain activity. You would all be able to see them on YouTube.

One of my favourite hobbies is illustration and I’ve only recently started using my illustrations in my lectures. I would love to create a series of animated movies to explain the studies that we run with children. The money would allow me design the animation and visit several schools to get feedback on the best way to present the animation and discuss what makes sense and what doesn’t. Animated movies can be funny and informative, but getting the right balance is difficult and hopefully you will all help me to achieve this.

This is one thing that I would like to do, but don’t be afraid to suggest other ideas if you think there are more important things I should do with the money.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious, Caring, Talkative.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I like a lot of music from classical to metal, it would be impossible to pick a favourite. Looking at my ipod the last three tracks I listened to were by killswitch Engage, Owl City and Muse.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I don’t think I can pick one thing, but every fun thing I’ve done has involved my friends – or making new friends.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I think wishes are far too complicated and I warn you that mine are very cheesy, but I guess: (1) to be happy – since I know that I wouldn’t be happy without the people I care about also being happy, this wish is for all my friends and family too; (2) that every thoughtful and caring person in the world has one wish; (3) just in case none of the thoughtful or caring people thought of it, I’d wish for world peace. I told you it was complicated and cheesy!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I really had no idea. I either wanted to work with children or computers – I guess I was waiting for someone to invent robot children.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Only for talking too much.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Discover answers to questions I’ve been curious about for ages. Although it always results in me asking more questions.

Tell us a joke.

What did Cinderella say to the photographer? Some day my prints will come.