Spotlight on the Director of the Institute of Advanced Study

Sep 29, 2023 | IAS Director, Meet the team, Transformations (Issue 10)

Spotlight on the Director of the Institute of Advanced Study

Having previously been a co-director within the IAS, a PI on a major project, a Christopherson Knott Fellow, and over ten years ago having led IAS activities in the ‘Futures’ theme, I have been involved with the IAS for many of the 19 years I have been in Durham. Being able to shape the IAS for the coming years is an exciting opportunity at a time when interdisciplinarity is seen as a necessity for large scale research projects.

My own work on the neuroscience and psychology of memory has its origins in a period as a 13-year-old patient in an adult neurological ward of a hospital for three weeks. In that time, I was exposed to a range of patients and disorders, and it astonished me that the brain could be responsible for so much. That started a passion in me for the big neuroscience questions, which over the course of a Physiology degree, and a PhD in Psychology, led me to focus on memory, and in particular episodic memory (the memory for personally experienced events in one’s life). It was clear to me early on in my career that bridging disciplines brought significant advantages, in this case allowing me to bring physiological perspectives to psychology, but also to bring a better consideration of behaviour to those working on physiological aspects of neuroscience. That has allowed me over my time in Durham to link across Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Biosciences to bring different perspectives to the questions that have been at the heart of my research.

It is, however, only through the IAS that I was able to fully explore my links beyond the sciences. Since then, I’ve been able to build connections across music, anthropology, and English, amongst others. Like many experiencing the IAS for the first time, I was struck by the ability the IAS offered to ‘zoom out’ and re-engage with the full complexity of a problem – which after all is what attracted that 13-year-old in hospital to the questions of neuroscience in the first place. It’s given me the chance to develop large scale interdisciplinary grants that reach across Durham, and offer ways of bringing together disciplinary perspectives to tackle questions in new ways.

As Director I hope I can shape the IAS to provide an environment that offers the space and time for others to have the same invigoration, and expansion of their research that it has allowed me.

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