My research interests can be summarised as aiming to investigate and explain human behaviour by considering multiple potential influences at different levels of explanation. For example, people’s genes, their brain structure, their brain functioning, cognitive, physiological and emotional functioning can all affect people’s behaviour both individually and in an interactive way. In addition to this, all individuals exist within a specific environment, as does each level of their functioning (for example a person may behave differently in quiet, relaxed surroundings compared to noisy, chaotic surroundings; and the same cognitive process may have different effects depending on which other cognitive processes are engaged). The environment in the broad sense of the term is therefore also an extremely important factor to consider when aiming to explain human behaviour. Finally, I am extremely interested in ultimately being able to bring about a behavioural change when such a change is desired by the individual in question.
I took up a post as Lecturer at the School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast in March 2014.
PhD and Postdoctoral research
I carried out my PhD research (2005-2008) at the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, supervised by Prof. Chris Oliver and Prof. Glyn Humphreys. My work focused on understanding temper outbursts in people with a genetic developmental disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome. For more information about this previous research click here. After my PhD I worked for just over two years at the Cerebra Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders, where I was involved in work aiming to better understand the difficulties faced by individuals with several different developmental disorders.
Marie Curie Fellowship
In January 2010 I was awarded an International Outgoing Marie Curie Fellowship by the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme. This fellowship supported my research for the three years between March 2011 and March 2014. During the first two years of the fellowship I worked with the Culture and Social Neuroscience Laboratory at the Department of Psychology, Peking University, China, and during the final year I returned to Birmingham. The focus of my work during this fellowship was on understanding how aspects of the environment – including someone’s immediate social surroundings and their broader cultural background – can impact on how they respond emotionally and how they control those emotions. This work has provided me with a strong basis for developing research aiming to increase understanding of how disorder may affect emotional processes and impact behaviour.
Executive functioning and behaviour in disordered populations
With the support of researchers at the Universities of Birmingham, Oxford and Bristol I developed a battery of executive functioning tests that aims to be appropriate for children with neurodevelopmental disorders. With the support of several researchers at the Cerebra Centre – most notably Krupa Seth – I administered this battery to a large sample of typically developing children. The aim of the research is to develop a tool that is capable of measuring certain important executive processes in individuals who may have a developmental disorder. Ultimately I aim to better understand the associations between executive functions and clinically relevant behaviours in disordered populations so that this information may be used to develop effective intervention approaches.
Helping strategies for people with disorders who find changes to routines or plans difficult
In September 2010 I began supervising a PhD student, Leah Bull. Leah’s PhD was supported by the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation and by the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham. Prof. Chris Oliver and Prof. Tony Holland from the University of Cambridge also co-supervised Leah’s work. Her research looked at ways to try to help people with Prader-Willi syndrome to better deal with changes in their routines or plans – which is something that people with the syndrome often find very difficult.
The approach that we developed in Leah’s PhD showed a lot of promise so we are now working on trying to develop the approach so that it may be helpful for people with other neurodevelopmental disorders who also find changes to routines and plans difficult.
Associations between emotional control and behaviour in disordered populations
Building from the work I completed as part of my Marie Curie fellowship I have designed a way to examine people’s capacity for controlling their own negative emotions, which is appropriate for individuals with a developmental disorder. I am currently using this method to assess the relationship between people’s capacity for controlling their negative emotion and certain profiles of challenging behaviour that appear to have a strong emotional component – such as temper outbursts.