I Can Be... a Neuroscientist

We met Professor Liz Pellicano – Scientist at the Institute of Education in London and Director of CRAE, the Centre for Research in Autism and Education.

Professor Liz Pellicano 

Professor Liz Pellicano 

Have you always wanted to be a Scientist?

I was always really curious and always wanted to know about why things happened the way they did. I also actually loved working with children. I wanted to be a paediatrician but I didn’t get the grades to get into medicine! So I thought child psychology would be the next best bet. I’m so glad that it worked out that way because I get to try to think about how children, young people and adult’s brains work and why they act the way they do. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do that if I was a paediatrician. I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to be a Scientist, though, and I think that that is a problem because not many girls actually grow up thinking that. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what a Scientist was. I’m the first person to go to university in my family so not much was said to me as a child that I could be a Scientist.

Has being a woman made any difference to your career and if so what kind?

I actually think being a woman in academia is quite tough, particularly in Science. At undergraduate level in Psychology, there is a huge gender imbalance, with many women and only a tiny minority of men. As a lecturer it’s really striking, having a sea of women in front of you and a few men dotted around the lecture theatre. But what’s even more striking is that it’s not clear where all these girls go. When you think about Science faculty members there is a bias toward men, particularly amongst professors, which is a huge flip from the gender balance at undergraduate level. That could be for a whole host of reasons. Women may not have as many opportunities, may have childcare commitments or because they don’t consider being a Scientist when they are younger. It is often more presented to young boys or men. It could even be that they don’t have confidence in their scientific ability, which is a real shame. 

It’s not always straightforward or necessarily easy being a woman in research Science. There are some great female researchers, though. Uta Frith, a professor in my field at UCL, has a mentoring group for women in Science, who all mentor and support each other which is great. But there are women in Science falling out at various points in their career for various reasons. Luckily my career so far hasn’t been hampered by that but it is definitely something that I am very conscious of.

What do you have for lunch?

I’m spoilt for choice being in Bloomsbury, we have everything you could possibly want on offer! I will usually just pop out to get a salad or I’ll bring something from home. Leftovers from last night’s dinner usually!

What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to be a Scientist?

If you want to be a Scientist, just go for it, especially if you are a girl. There are lots of Science clubs and computer programming clubs in schools now that kids can do. I would suggest getting involved in things like that and not being put off if there are lots of boys in the group, you can do it anyway.

When you get a bit older, I would suggest contacting a Scientist that you have seen or know of and asking whether you can do work experience in a laboratory. There are also some grant organisations that do work experience placements for young people to encourage them to get into Science. Also, in London, the Barbican and the Wellcome Trust run Science festivals. They are free and children can get to meet inspiring Scientists who are doing really fun and interesting things. I think that getting a ‘taste for Science’ in these ways is really valuable.

How do you get to work?

I get the tube. I’m not a big fan of rush hour, though. I don’t like the crowds and how hot and uncomfortable it can be so I get to work ridiculously early, around 7am. I love walking here from the tube that early because, although I’m in Central London, it’s so peaceful and such a nice start to my working day. I would like to cycle but I like wearing skirts and heels too much!

Who has helped you to get to where you are now?

There have been quite a few people who have helped and supported me along the way. I had great supervisors, both for my undergraduate degree and for my PhD. They were just amazing. I also have really great people now that I can call upon if and whenever I need advice. These people I would call my mentors. I value their opinions and I respect them and their work enormously and I know that they will give me really honest, good feedback or advice on whatever it is I need.

I've found motivation in the kids and the families that I work with. They are all so amazing. Just working with them you get so many ideas. You can discount a lot of ideas too! They are also so inspiring. For example, I work with a single mother who has identical twins with autism, who both don’t speak all that much. They always stick in my mind because the boys are very sweet and their mum is so lovely and upbeat about everything, despite all of the challenges she faces every day. When I am having a hard day, I think about people like her and how amazing they are and I think ‘I’m doing this for the right reasons’. 

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

There have been lots of things that have been good! Recently our centre [CRAE] won the IOE Director’s Prize for excellence in public engagement in research. I think as Scientists and researchers, we have a duty to make our findings known to people ‘out there’ in the general public. That’s not an easy thing to do at all because we do things that are highly specific and full of lots of jargon. It’s a real skill trying to make it accessible to everyone and we’re not taught how to do it. It takes a great deal of practice. What I’m really proud of at our centre is that we’ve tried to engage lots of different members of the autism community and the general public – young people with autism, families of children with autism, practitioners, teachers and clinicians and the general public to try and understand and promote awareness and acceptance of autism. We try and do it in a whole variety of different ways, whether It’s a paper newsletter or an email or on Facebook or twitter. It’s exciting to do things through so many different modes of interaction. I’m very proud of all the members of the team because they each chip and do different bits and pieces and, in this way, I think we do a really great job of engaging the community. That would be my highlight so far.

What is the best thing about being a Scientist?

Probably that I get to think about why things are the way they are and why we act the way we do. I get to think about the mind and the brain and how we think and learn, in particular how children learn and how autistic children think differently from other children. The best times are when I have time to come up with ideas and then test them out. I devise projects to see whether our ideas have any tiny bit of truth in them! It’s kind of daunting but that’s the process of discovery and that’s what I enjoy the most. There are lots of challenges along the way, of course – it’s not easy! But that moment of pushing the button on your statistics programme is really exciting! It’s great.

What are your aspirations for the future?

I think I would like our centre (CRAE) to grow, not just in terms of the number of people that work there, although that would be great, but what I want to do is to make an impact on people’s lives. I would want to know that the outreach work and the engagement work that we do actually does promote awareness and acceptance of autism and that we are actually getting out there to communities. It’s a hard task to set ourselves! I also want to make sure that the research and the science that we do pushes boundaries. Sometimes science can get a bit stagnant and re-hash the same old stuff and test the same ideas. But I think you need something to push through, some different way of thinking. So what I would want is for our centre to be doing things that actually contribute to knowledge in a significant way, rather than just testing the same old ideas. Basically, I want to make a difference to people’s lives and ultimately to autistic people and their families. If I could make a difference to their lives in some way then that would be awesome.

Finally, if you weren’t a Scientist what would you have been?

Definitely a Formula One racing car driver! In stilettos obviously! I grew up in a family who liked cars and my dad and my brother built cars. On the farm that I grew up on, with my brother, we used to have motorbikes and we used to race each other and build jumps – it was all very exciting! I wanted to be a rally car driver for a long time but I realised the dirt would just be a bit too much for me! So I switched to Formula One instead!