Birkbeck, University of London, UK
What does your research focus on?
I am interested in the cognitive and neural mechanisms that enable young children, from early infancy, to interact with and learn from other people, and how these might differ from other species. We know a great deal about the kind of social abilities that even very young infants possess, but we know much less about the neural mechanisms that underpin these abilities. My current research investigates the cognitive and neural mechanisms that enable infants to understand and predict the actions of others. Basic action understanding and prediction is a fundamental prerequisite for being able to learn from, and interact with, others.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
During my PhD, I focused on the physical cognitive abilities of young children and non-human primates, outlining similarities in their abilities. However, this focus on overlapping cognitive abilities led me to start thinking about what it is that makes humans different from our closest relatives, and this led me to social cognition.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
My PhD adviser, Juan Carlos Gomez of the University of St. Andrews, taught me much about deep theoretical issues in developmental psychology and gave me the freedom to pursue my own research interests throughout my PhD. I was then incredibly fortunate to work with two brilliant people: Gergely Csibra and Mark Johnson of Birkbeck University. My passion for the questions that I am trying to answer comes as a direct result of many many discussions and debates, over a number of years, with Gergely Csibra, whose enthusiasm and intellect were hugely inspiring to me. I am also very indebted to Mark Johnson who has been incredibly supportive, both intellectually and practically, since I started working at the CBCD seven years ago.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
While part of any success is down to motivation and hard work, any success that I have had is, in large part, due to the collaboration and support that I have had from brilliant people.
What’s your future research agenda?
To figure out how experience during those early months of life could contribute to infants’ abilities to make sense of others’ actions. What kind of inputs do infants reliably get, and how are these inputs turned into concepts that enable the infant to reason in complex ways about others’ actions?
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
1. To make sure you find a question that genuinely fascinates you and makes you want to work every evening and all weekend, and find good friends to keep you company.
2. Publish: I did not publish anything from my PhD until I was a post-doc, but these days things are different, and you will be competing for post-doc funding with other PhD students who already have publications.
3. Not to take reviewer comments to heart — you will have to develop a very thick skin!
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
One paper that means a lot to me is this one. It was the result of a lot of hard work and methods development, and it has given me a new tool by which to explore what infants know about others’ actions.
Southgate, V., Johnson, M. H., El Karoui, I., & Csibra, G. (2010). Motor system activation reveals infants’ online prediction of others’ goals. Psychological Science, 21, 355-359.