Journey to the front of the lecture theatre

Sally Adams reflects on the journey from student to lecturer as she begins a lectureship in health psychology at the University of Bath and looks forward to continued collaboration with TARG.

This week saw students all over the UK collecting their A-Level results, and I was reminded of collecting my own, 13 years ago. Disappointingly, I didn’t achieve the grades I expected. I was advised to consider a different degree course other than psychology by my school career advisor. However, even with relatively poor grades I was certain that psychology was for me. This interest in psychology has been a feature throughout my career and has motivated me when things were tough.

I managed to convince (read as: rang the same university 3 times in the space of a few hours, professing my undying love for cognition and behaviour) the University of Wales, Institute Cardiff to offer me a place to study. From this point I promised myself I would take every opportunity to be proactive and hardworking as I had been given this amazing opportunity. I finished my undergrad with a 2:1 and an offer to return to the university as a research assistant. I was invited to interview for this post with a few other students from my year. I like to think that this opportunity was the result of my work ethic and enthusiasm for the subject.

This post was the beginning of my interest in health psychology, specifically the psychology of health and well-being and the factors that underlie health behaviours (e.g., engaging in exercise, drinking alcohol, and cigarette smoking). At this stage I was still unsure whether to pursue a career in clinical health psychology or research. My experience of research up to this point was largely entering and analysing questionnaire data and the prospect of a career of “data entering” did not particularly light my fire!  However, my impression of research was forever changed during a placement as part of my masters in health psychology at the University of Bath. I was assigned to shadow Marcus Munafò at the University of Bristol and as they say the rest is history!  Without any over-statement I can safely say my mind was blown; everything I thought about research was turned on its head. My masters project investigated the role of dopamine in cigarette craving and processing biases towards cigarette cues (e.g., a packet of cigarettes, seeing someone else smoking). This was a clinical study, which involved lots of planning, developing study documents and recruitment and testing of participants. The placement was a new challenge which I relished and I was amazed at how well-designed and rewarding human lab-based studies could be.

My passion for research and specifically experimental studies was consolidated following a research assistant post in Catherine Harmer’s lab group at the University of Oxford. It was around this time I started to have my own focused ideas and research questions. Itching to start answering these questions I began to apply for PhD studentships. It was a tough time as I was rejected from several programs and I started to doubt my ability to pursue a career in research psychology. My post in Oxford brought me back in contact with Marcus at Bristol and we decided to put in an application for a PhD studentship. I was especially excited by this application as it was based on my own research questions and in a subject I was very passionate about-alcohol use.

The day I found out I received a University of Bristol scholarship was amazing, it felt like a massive step in my career journey. I was fairly late in starting my PhD, aged 26, but with several years of research assistant experience under my belt I felt ready and extremely excited to return to studying. My PhD is easily one of the best experiences of my life. Every day was different; sometimes I would be sitting in a cafe reading papers, and sometimes I would be designing experiments or testing in the lab. My PhD was an exciting rollercoaster of highs (completing studies, presenting my own research at conferences, publishing papers) and lows (hours of experiment programming, paper rejections, no-show participants), but overall it was a great experience. One of my proudest achievements during my PhD was being awarded several travel awards to attend international conferences. This required a lot of proactive effort on my part but having a very supportive supervisor was extremely important too. TARG in general was a great supportive environment during my PhD, a culture of collaboration in a research group saved me from some hairy moments.

I was fortunate enough to begin my postdoc career in TARG. I still felt I had lots to learn from working with Marcus and the research group. My postdoc has actually been the steepest learning curve of my research career, but also the most rewarding. Learning to juggle all of the roles in my post has been pivotal in preparing me to become an independent scientist. Alongside running studies and writing papers came new responsibilities including grant writing and supervision. I have been lucky enough to secure my first small grant to research a form of cognitive training for reducing cigarette use. This was a great feeling and has given me the confidence to apply for larger grants. However, as my responsibilities increased, so did my workload and rejections. Throughout my postdoc I have had to learn how to better manage my time and to delegate. I found this very difficult to begin with after doing everything for myself as a PhD student. However it has been an essential lesson to learn along with developing a thicker skin for paper and grant rejections. For me, my thirst for understanding the thought processes and behaviours that guide health behaviours has motivated me to keep working long hours and keep applying!

So, back to present day: I am due to start my first lectureship in the next few days and I couldn’t be any more nervous or excited. When I was first offered the post I was terrified about the idea of “going it alone”, but in the last few months, looking back on what I have learnt I finally feel ready to fly the TARG nest. I take with me the confidence to follow my own programme of research, management skills to begin my own lab group and my continued love of psychology. I can’t wait to return to TARG as a collaborator and an independent researcher!

This article is posted by Sally Adams


“Doubt is our product…”

Cigarette smoking is addictive. Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. Today these statements are uncontroversial, but it’s easy to forget that this was not the case until relatively recently. The first studies reporting a link between smoking and lung cancer appeared in the 1950’s (although scientists in Germany had reported a link earlier), while the addictiveness of tobacco, and the isolation of nicotine as the principal addictive constituent, was not established until some time later. Part of the reason for this is simply that scientific progress is generally slow, and scientists themselves are typically not the kind of people to get ahead of themselves.

However, another factor is that at every stage the tobacco industry has resisted the scientific evidence that has indicated the harms associated with the use of its products. One way in which it has done this is by suggesting that there is uncertainty around the core evidence base used to support tobacco control efforts. A 1969 Brown and Williamson document outlines this strategy: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ [linking smoking with disease] that exists in the mind of the general public”.

This approach seeks to “neutralize the influence of academic scientists”, and has since been adopted more widely by other lobby groups. The energy industry has used a similar approach in response to consensus among climate scientists on the role of human activity in climate change. But what’s the problem? There are always a number of ways to interpret data, scientists will hold different theoretical positions despite being in possession of the same basic facts, people are entitled to their opinion… That’s fine, but the tobacco industry goes beyond this and actively misrepresents the facts. Why do I care? Because recently our research was misrepresented in this way…

There is ongoing debate around whether to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products. Public health researchers mostly favour it, while the tobacco industry is opposed to it. No particular surprises there, but there’s a need for more research to inform the debate. We have done some research here in Bristol suggesting that standardised packs increase the prominence of health warnings in non-smokers and light smokers. Interestingly, we didn’t see this in regular smokers. This research contributed to the recent European Commission Tobacco Products Directive and the UK government consultation on standardised packaging. British American Tobacco (BAT) submitted a response to this consultation, which cited our research and said:

“The researchers concluded that daily smokers exhibited more eye movements towards health warnings when the pack was branded than when it was plain, but the opposite was true for non-smokers and non-daily smokers”.

We didn’t find that, and we didn’t say that. This isn’t a matter of interpretation or opinion – this is simple misrepresentation. What we actually concluded was:

“…among non-smokers and weekly … smokers, plain packaging increases visual attention towards health warning information and away from brand information. This effect is not observed among daily (i.e. established) cigarette smokers”.

In other words, standardised packaging increases the prominence of health warnings in non-smokers and light smokers, but don’t seem to have any effect in daily smokers. This is an important difference compared to how BAT represents this research. In their response to the consultation, BAT argues that “plain packaging may actually reduce smokers’ attention to warnings”. Of course it’s possible that there could be negative unintended consequences to standardised packaging, but there is no evidence in our study for this.

Why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t – people get misrepresented all the time. But scientists produce data and ideas, the latter ideally based on the former, and so to misrepresent their conclusions is fundamentally distorting. Unfortunately this sort of thing happens all the time, including in media coverage of scientists’ work. This often makes scientists less willing to engage in important debates where they could make a valuable contribution. If this happens, then those with clear vested interests will succeed in removing valuable evidence from these debates. More importantly, this example illustrates why it’s vital that scientists do engage with the public and the media. Only by doing so can scientists make sure that their research is accurately represented, and that attempts to misrepresent their research are challenged.

As the health effects of smoking became apparent, successive governments acted to reduce the prevalence of smoking in the population. In the United Kingdom these efforts have been pretty successful – the overall prevalence of smoking is currently around 20%, down from a peak of over 50% in the 1950’s. This is due to restrictions on tobacco advertising, increases in taxation on tobacco products, and other tobacco control measures, as well as public health campaigns to increase awareness of the health consequences of tobacco use and greater availability of services to help people stop smoking. We want these policies to be evidence-based, and we don’t want this evidence to be knowingly distorted. Scientists have an important part to play in this.

Posted by Marcus Munafo @MarcusMunafo