“When I’m a grownup, I’ll make so much money that I can have a driver and a cook!” I don’t recall ever saying this, but my sister Kirsten swears, amidst tears of laughter, that I announced this while I was still at primary school. It appears that even early on I was ambitious, not willing to resign myself to a life as a housewife… and maybe a bit lazy. 😉
My plans became a bit more concrete around the age of 11, when I developed an interest in pathology. While all my friends dreamt of becoming singers, actors, or astronauts, I was trying to motivate myself to get through chemistry as I would need good marks to get into a medical programme. What mostly intrigued me was the puzzle-solving element of it: using your knowledge of the human body and your observation of what’s in front of you, in order to figure out what had happened to this person. Books and TV piqued my interest in forensic psychiatry, which then developed into an interest in psychology. The main driver was still solving puzzles, but the tools had expanded to knowledge of the human brain (and, if you’re a Cartesian dualist, mind), and the observation of human behaviour.
I decided to study in Scotland rather than Germany, a) because I had always been consumed by wanderlust, and b) because my mum is from Scotland, and I wanted to discover that part of my identity. I ended up in Aberdeen, the so-called Silver City by the Sea – or “Furrybootstoon” as my uncle from Falkirk referred to it. Having grown up in a rural village in Germany, I immediately fell in love with the international environment at the university.
During the first two years of my degree, we had to take additional classes outside of our main course, to provide us with more freedom and flexibility in our studies. Therefore I also attended some classes in anthropology, statistics, physiology, and genetics. And while I quickly realised that – shock horror – forensic profiling is not as reliable as TV suggests, I did discover my passion for two areas I hadn’t previously considered as part of psychology – neuropsychology, the assessment and rehabilitation of people with brain injuries and neurodegenerative illnesses, and cognitive psychology, the study of mental processes such as language, memory, and perception.
Thanks to my supervisors and mentors, Amelia Hunt, Jasna Martinovic, and Arash Sahraie, I delved into visual perception – how our brains interpret visual information and shape our perception of the world around us based on our experiences and expectations. This is an area that most psychology students hate, as it can get very abstract and theory-based, but I found it fascinating. As Amelia said: “We could be living in the Matrix and not know about it”! It is mind bending to realise how unreliable and susceptible this sense, that we put so much trust into, is. One of the things I especially adore about this area is the challenge of having to find a way to measure something that is essentially intangible – the ‘algorithms’ employed by the human mind. This process requires as much creativity as it does rigor.
After completing my Bachelor’s and Master’s, I’d had enough of theory and wanted to apply my knowledge in the real world. I got a job as a clinical neuropsychologist in a tiny spa village in Northern Germany, where I worked with patients who had experienced strokes, traumatic brain injuries, or neurodegenerative diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis or ALS. While the work was hard, it was incredibly gratifying to see how the theories and research I had learnt about at university made a positive change to these people’s lives; how after just a few weeks of training you could notice definite improvements in their memory, vision, ability to plan and carry out daily activities. At the same time, I was starting to miss research, the opportunity to investigate interesting questions – but I wanted to combine this with applications. That’s what caught my eye about the INTREPID project.
So now I am actually kind of where I wanted to be in my teens – doing psychology with a forensic application. Granted, it’s not forensic psychology in a traditional sense of the word, but it’s really interesting, and whenever I speak with professionals in the field they are keen, share their own ideas, and are more than happy to collaborate.
So where do I go from here? I honestly don’t know. Life is never straightforward. It’s full of hills, valleys, and serpentines, and at times it’s much harder to keep on going than you’d like. But you make some amazing discoveries along the way. And while I have developed decent cooking skills, I still believe I’m gonna get that driver some day soon! 🙂