Career Path: The fascination of neuroscience and the teenage brain

7A Stephanie Burnett Heyes (2 - portrait)

CareerMy life as a scientist is varied, hectic and rewarding. I feel tremendously privileged to be doing what I do.

I’m a cognitive neuroscientist, which means that I study the brain and the mind. To do this, I use a mixture of psychology and brain imaging.

The teenage brain and mind is my main research topic. I’m interested in finding out how basic mental abilities, such as short term memory, as well as more complex abilities, such as understanding emotions and social situations, alter during the teenage years. Sometimes, I use brain scanning to look at their neural basis.

Studying teenagers is hard. A teenager is so similar to an adult that it’s hard to spot the difference. Many changes take place during adolescence, so collecting good data and interpreting it correctly can be a challenge.

But… it’s both interesting, and important. Many mental health problems begin to take root during the teenage years, and we have very little real understanding of why this is and what we can do about it.

So that’s the big picture. But what do I do all day?

Short answer: A lot of different things. Here are some of the things I’ve been working on just this week:

  • Designing experiments.  This uses a unique mix of scientific reasoning and creative insight.  In science, there is a rule book but no manual.  You have to follow scientific principles to come up with something new.  At the moment, I am experimenting with combining psychology, game theory and social network analysis.
  • Learning a new coding language.  Coding is using maths to make computers do stuff for you.  I use it to analyse data and build experiments.  When I started doing science, I thought I was rubbish at coding so I should leave it to the experts.  Then I learned that everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Writing. When I’ve done an experiment and it worked, I write it up and send it to a journal. I find this hard. Luckily, scientists tend to work in teams, so when I get stuck I ask my colleagues for help. I work with some amazing people and I really respect their opinions. Sometimes, when I’ve sent a paper off, the journal sends it back with critical comments. Then I have to construct a watertight argument that will win them over. This is fun – like intellectual sparring.
  • Teaching university students. I write lectures, mark essays, and meet with students to give guidance on assignments and check they’re ok. Sometimes students are having a hard time for various reasons. If I can do my bit to help them achieve their goals, I find that deeply rewarding.
  • Public speaking. I never thought I’d say this, but I really enjoy giving a talk in front of a couple of hundred people. If I feel nervous, I interpret it as excitement. I prepare properly and I practice what I’m going to say. I get a real buzz if it goes well.

I don’t know any other job that has such a variety of activities in a single week. I honestly think I’d get bored doing anything else.

Dr. Stephanie Burnett Heyes
School of Psychology, University of Birmingham

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