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


One for the road? The hidden risks of roadside alcohol availability

As JD Wetherspoon looks set to open its first motorway service station pub, it may be time to ask where to draw the line in the sale of alcohol, says Sally Adams

In the UK, you can purchase and drink alcohol in bars, restaurants, cafes, at the cinema, at the theatre and on planes and trains. However, how often have you had the urge for a pint while driving along the M40 and not had the opportunity?

Well fear not, this week sees popular pub chain JD Wetherspoon take to the motorways of Great Britain. In explaining the move, the company draws focus towards the franchise’s successful soft drink and food sales. However, what appears to be unspoken is the fact that this move will see alcohol served roadside. The successful application to a Buckinghamshire local council is alleged to include a licence to serve alcohol between 8am and 1am. The application is timely, given that the government is currently reviewing its alcohol strategy, including the sale of alcohol at motorway services.

One of the key aims of the government’s strategy is to regard “health as a new alcohol licensing objective … so that licensing authorities can consider alcohol-related health harms when managing the problems relating to the number of premises in their area”. In a UK where 17% of females and 26% of males drink above the weekly government recommendation for alcohol, increasing its availability at motorway service stations seems counterintuitive to this goal.

Firstly, let’s consider the proposed location of the first roadside JD Wetherspoon pub. This is a location that is only accessible by road. Therefore, for every group of customers there will be at least one designated driver. While it’s legal to drive after a drink, evidence has clearly demonstrated that even a small amount of alcohol is detrimental to driving performance.

One review concludes that there is no known threshold of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at which impairment does not occur and no sufficient evidence that a certain category of driver will not be affected by alcohol. Alcohol-related impairments in driving are not consequence free. In 2010 it was estimated that 14% of road fatalities involved drink-driving. Figures from the same Department for Transport report indicated that almost 10,000 road traffic casualties occurred when the driver was over the legal alcohol limit.

These figures have the potential to be sobering if drivers are aware of their alcohol intake and the drink-driving limit. However, it is well documented that knowledge of alcohol units is weak. Moreover, awareness of the legal limit and penalties for drink driving are poorly understood.

Regardless of whether drivers are armed with this knowledge, the decision to drink alcohol, or of how much to consume, may be impaired as soon as you see that bar sign from the motorway. Cue reactivity is the principle that mere exposure to cues associated with alcohol use (eg a bar setting, or seeing others drinking) can trigger physiological and psychological responses indicative of arousal such as increased heart rate, sweating and alcohol craving. Importantly, these responses are often automatic, occurring without any conscious thought.

So imagine the scene: you stop at the services after a stint of driving and have to decide where to eat/drink. You are a regular drinker and recognise a familiar chain-pub brand, alcohol-related cue #1. You decide to go and refuel at this well-known chain and walk into a bar alcohol-related cue #2, with multiple drinks on display alcohol-related cue #3 and numerous other customers drinking alcohol alcohol-related cue #4. Before you have even made the decision whether to consume alcohol or not, you have been confronted with several alcohol-related cues.

Studies of alcohol cue exposure suggest that cues previously and repeatedly presented with drinking can become powerful cues in their own right, leading to cognitive and physical responses that can trigger alcohol seeking and consumption. Interestingly, the association between alcohol-related cues and reward can be especially powerful for heavier, more regular drinkers, meaning these drinkers are more vulnerable to environmental alcohol cues.

For social drinkers, cues can range from environmental context (being in a bar) and time of day (after work), to the external properties of alcohol (sight/smell of wine). These cues alone can be so strongly associated with alcohol-related reward that they promote alcohol use. A potential problem of roadside alcohol cue exposure is therefore the risk of drinking alcohol without any real intention to drink. This is particularly potent when you think of the potential damage alcohol consumption may cause in this context – namely, getting back in a vehicle and driving at high speeds.

Considering that the dawn of the new government alcohol strategy is upon us, increasing the presence of alcohol-related cues and availability of alcohol in a roadside location does not signal a step in the right direction. Is it time to call time on the availability of alcohol in seemingly hazardous and unnecessary places?

Sally Adams is a postdoctoral researcher in Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol

This article first appeared on the Guardian science blog website on 5th June 2013 and is posted by Sally Adams