Alzheimer type dementia

by Prof Jennifer Rusted


Age is not synonymous with poor health, but Alzheimer type dementia (AD) is a disease of the brain for which age is the biggest risk factor – the older you are, the greater your risk of developing the disease.  But it certainly is not inevitable, and in the School of Psychology, we have been exploring some of the other risk factors that play a significant role in determining who ages well and who develops changes in the brain and cognition that indicate all is not progressing normally.

Alzheimer type dementia doesn’t happen overnight.  It involves a gradual process of change, transition states that progress idiosyncratically in each individual. And we know that they make be happening for several decades before the ‘classic’ symptoms of AD -memory problems and difficulties with independent living – begin to show.

In collaboration with colleagues in BSMS, we have been studying the changes from early adulthood onwards that occur in carriers of a variant of the Apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene.  APOE functions to regulate the movement of cholesterol around the body but like many genes, it comes in different ‘allelic’ variations. Everyone has two alleles, some combination of 2 of its 3 major alleles: e2, e3, e4.  Most of the population have two e3s; but around 20% of the population carry at least one e4 allele. The e3 and e4 alleles differ by one amino acid, but having an e4 rather than an e3 allele vastly changes your lifetime risk for Alzheimer type dementia – around 4-fold if you have a single e4 and around 12-fold you have a double e4.  Your individual APOE genotype therefore represents an important risk factor for late-onset AD.

Through funding from the BBSRC, the Alzheimer’s Society, and some additional funded PhD posts, we have been researching APOE associations with cognition and brain changes across adulthood. The research topics have included human brain imaging, human cognition, as well as brain imaging and behaviour in transgenic animals. We have identified subtle differences in brain and behaviour that help to build a detailed picture of the changes that mark accelerated ageing and potential for pathological trajectories, including brain energy differences, brain structural changes, and differences in performance on certain cognitive tasks. Our work has highlighted that even from early adulthood, carrying an e4 allele means that your brain is behaving differently.  The image below is a composite image showing brain regions where our studies have indicated that the e4 brain is working harder than a typical e3 brain. 

Our work has shown that as we get older, the brain regions identified in this image gradually activate less well – they seem to age prematurely. Our ongoing animal studies include work translating human tests of cognition into mouse behavioural paradigms, so that we can explore this effect more clearly across the age span, and in highly specific brain regions.  Our ongoing human studies are exploring early blood-brain barrier changes, and computational measures of brain region inter-connectivity between APOEe3 and APOEe4 individuals, with a focus on specific key regions of the brain. We are excited also to welcome back Dr Claire Lancaster, who completed her PhD with us in 2018, and who has been awarded an Alzheimer’s Society Research Fellowship to explore the detailed consequences of, and the potential ways to counter, the early brain changes observed in APOEe4 carriers.

This exciting work is complemented by additional studies being completed in the School of Life Sciences that focus down on the cellular mechanisms that drive these changes.

Our work is contributing to developing a detailed picture of one of the key risk factors for late onset AD.  We take this opportunity to thank all of those individuals who have given their time by volunteering to participate in our research studies.  We couldn’t have done it without you.  

Jenny Rusted is a Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Group. She specialises in dementia and cognitive ageing and is co-director of the Alzheimer’s Society Doctoral Training Centre.

Find out more about our research on Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience.

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Enhancing Essay Feedback

By Dr Dave Smalley

The topic of student perceptions of written feedback is an under-researched area which is surprising given that universities typically struggle disproportionately with the Assessment and Feedback questions in the National Student Survey (NSS). We know that feedback is very much valued by students but we also know, both from peer-reviewed research and from simply asking students, that they often find it hard to actually use their feedback and that they get very frustrated by what they perceive to be inconsistencies in the quality and quantity of feedback they receive across markers. With that in mind, I set about exploring the student perception of feedback further with the hope of developing our systems and improving our students’ experience of receiving feedback on their work.

Focus groups conducted in 2020 revealed that students wanted more guidance to help them understand the essay marking criteria. It is quite common for students to think that they understand what they are supposed to be doing with regard to a particular element of essay writing (e.g. structuring an essay), only to be marked down for it in the next submission. Part of the issue, it seems, is that the marking criteria can be vague when it comes to describing specific elements of essay writing. This leads to an incomplete understanding of what the marker is looking for and subsequently confusion when interpreting feedback. So how can we remedy this? I propose a more specific and structured framework of marking criteria that identifies individual elements of essay writing that are important (e.g. how to signpost the reader effectively by means of paragraph structure). For this to be effective, it is crucial that students have sufficient guidance to help them understand what the individual elements mean and – and this is key – are able to identify what it looks like in an essay when this is done well or inadequately.

The same focus groups unanimously agreed that students wanted consistency in their feedback, particularly with regard to how useful it is. Students want practical suggestions as to how they could go about improving an area of their essay writing, and this, they said, was in short supply. I argue that giving meaningful practical tips to help students improve their essay writing is actually really hard to do. In my experience, even excellent essay writers struggle to explain exactly what they do that makes them excellent essay writers. They just, kind of, learn how to do it. What we need therefore are experienced educators who have acquired a toolbox of tips and tricks to help students improve their essay writing. The problem is that there are not enough of these to cover the sheer volume of scripts that need to be marked. A solution – we complement our structured and detailed framework of the marking criteria with a set of specific and practical suggestions compiled by experienced educators, each linked to specific elements of essay writing.

So this is what I did. I started by creating a 15-item rubric that breaks down and details the key elements of essay writing identified in the existing marking criteria. When essays are marked the marker links each comment made to one of the elements so the student has a specific idea about what exactly they did that was ‘good’ or ‘needs attention’. Each item in the rubric is explained in detail in a series of marking criteria videos in which I use previously marked essays to demonstrate what effective and not-so-effective practice looks like. Next, I created a supporting feedback guidance document in which I exhaustively list all the issues that markers observe in student essays, organised by the 15 criteria of the rubric. Issues are colour coded into a traffic light system so that students can see how severe an impact the issue has on their grade. Next to each issue are practical suggestions about how to avoid the issue reoccurring in the next essay submission. The magic of the approach is that markers can simply link an in-essay comment to the issue in the guidance document. That means that there is less room for inconsistencies across markers, and markers have more time available to focus on being extra clear when making more individualised feedback comments in the essay.

Evaluation of this new approach is in its infancy but early indications are that it is very well received by both students and markers alike. We know that feedback is an essential component in the learning cycle so fingers crossed we’ve just succeeded in oiling the wheels a little!

Dr Dave Smalley is an Education-Focused Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology.

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Do Changes in Emotion Regulation Affect Decision-Making in People with Alzheimer’s Disease?

by Dr Rotem Perach, Prof Jennifer Rusted, Prof Pete Harris, Dr Eleanor Miles

Ever felt so excited that you found yourself telling your life story to a stranger? Or so anxious about something that you could think about little else? We know that our emotions often affect our decisions, for example, by shaping the kind of information we attend to and the goals we hold. People with Alzheimer’s type Dementia (AD) often experience changes in both their emotions and judgements. So, for people with AD, does this change the way their emotions influence their decision-making?

‘Emotion regulation’ is the term used to describe the processes by which people exert influence on their emotional experiences and their subsequent responses. Persons with AD can experience difficulties in some aspects of emotion regulation. For example, as the disease progresses, the ability to recognize emotion in people’s faces decreases. However, it seems that other emotion regulation capacities that are less cognitively demanding, such as automatic control over emotion, are unchanged. Given that people with AD continue to make many decisions in different areas of their everyday lives, including decisions involving leisure and social activities, care arrangements, and financial issues, we completed a literature review to investigate the state of knowledge on the relationship between decision-making in everyday life and emotion regulation in persons with AD and other types of dementia.

To our surprise, we found only two studies on this association in people with AD. In one study, people with AD showed higher levels of apathy (often a symptom of AD), in comparison to cognitively healthy people. However, differences in apathy were not associated with decision-making performance. In the second study, people with AD and cognitively healthy people showed no differences in physiological (autonomic) arousal (used to measure emotional processing) relating to making a moral decision in a fictitious scenario. In neither study of people with AD, therefore, was there evidence of an association between the measures of emotion regulation and the decision being made. However, in studies of people with other types of dementia, we found evidence in support of the association between emotion regulation and decision-making, depending on the measures used.

Overall, our review found mixed evidence concerning the associations between emotion regulation and decision-making in (AD and other types of) dementia in seven studies and identified important gaps in the dementia literature. For example, dementia studies so far have focused on emotional experience, but not investigated the use of emotion regulation strategies in association with decision-making. This gap raises important questions. For example, does a person’s tendency to suppress their emotional expressions or to positively frame everyday experiences affect their decision-making in everyday life and consequent wellbeing?

At the University of Sussex we are examining such questions as part of a large long-term study called DETERMIND (DETERMinants of quality of life, care and costs, and consequences of INequalities in people with Dementia and their carers).

Free access to our scoping review on decision-making and emotion regulation in persons with dementia will be made available here when the article is published.

The authors of the article are part of the DETERMIND team at the University of Sussex:

  • Rotem Perach is social and health psychology research fellow. His areas of expertise include older persons, health behaviours, sleep, and wellbeing. 
  • Jenny Rusted is a Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Group. She specialises in dementia and cognitive ageing and is co-director of the Alzheimer’s Society Doctoral Training Centre.
  • Pete Harris is an Emeritus Professor. Until his retirement in September 2020, he was the lead of the Social and Applied Psychology Group. For the last 15 years, he has been studying the effects of self-affirmation, largely on health and more recently on educational attainment and on pro-environmental behaviour.
  • Eleanor Miles is a Senior Lecturer and part of the Social and Applied Psychology Group. Her research focuses on self-regulation, and how it interacts with emotional, physical and social functioning

Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology and on our research on Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience.

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Do bad blood vessels trigger dementia?

By Dr Catherine Hall

Dementia affects increasing numbers of people as they age (one in 14 people over the age of 65 suffer from dementia). It changes how the brain functions, gradually stopping brain cells and brain connections from working so that people progressively struggle with remembering things, thinking and speaking. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is characterised by the build-up in the brain of two proteins, beta-amyloid and tau, which are thought to damage cells and cause them to die. Up to now, most drugs have targeted these proteins, but have not been successful and there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

However, changes happen in the brain years before people start reporting problems with memory and thinking. It is therefore likely that the most effective treatments will act early in the disease process to interfere with its progression before brain cells become damaged making it important to understand what happens to cause the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Increasing evidence suggests that damage to blood vessels feeding the brain might first trigger the disease. Firstly, risk factors for dementia are the same as risk factors for cardiovascular disease (e.g. obesity, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, and the main genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, APOE4), suggesting that unhealthy blood vessels could cause both diseases. Secondly, brain blood vessels show the first signs of dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease, as brain blood flow is disrupted before the build-up of beta-amyloid and tau, and before neurons are damaged and memory is impaired. 

Pericytes and smooth muscle cells (red) regulate blood vessel diameter (in green). This process may go wrong early in Alzheimer’s disease

In a project funded by the Medical Research Council, my lab is trying to understand how changes in blood vessels in the brain are linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Brain cells need a constant supply of energy in the form of oxygen and glucose provided in the blood, and previous research has shown that if they have only low levels of oxygen, brain cells accumulate more beta-amyloid. We are creating new genetically modified mice that allow us to investigate whether the critical trigger for Alzheimer’s disease is if blood vessels in the brain stop working properly, producing a decrease in brain oxygen levels which causes the build-up of beta-amyloid.

Our previous work, funded by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust, shows that the main genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease (APOE4) causes some blood vessels to become dysfunctional even in young mice. However normal mice cannot make beta-amyloid, so we have not yet been able to study how this damage to blood vessels affects beta-amyloid production. Our new genetically modified mice can produce beta-amyloid but in a controllable way (by changing the amount of a drug we feed the mice), and also carry the APOE4 gene. This allows us to first identify which blood vessels are not working correctly, and then turn on beta-amyloid production. We can then study whether beta-amyloid accumulates near the dysfunctional vessels and in areas with low oxygen levels. Because beta-amyloid itself can stop blood vessels from working well, we expect that affected vessels will gradually become even more dysfunctional, accelerating beta-amyloid accumulation until nearby brain cells are damaged.

These experiments will reveal how changes in blood flow lead to the build-up of beta-amyloid and damage to brain cells. The new mice will allow us to test the effect of drugs and lifestyle interventions such as exercise on this process, identifying new approaches for treatments targeting the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.   

Dr Catherine Hall is a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology and the director of the Brain Energy Lab.

Find out more about our research on Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience.

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“They don’t know we’ve got legs”: meeting online and in-person

By Prof Nicola Yuill

Covid-19 restrictions haven’t just stopped us meeting in person – instead, they have nudged us into new ways of connecting. Humans are the ultimate social species: evolutionary biologists regard the human tendency towards cooperation as having created the complex coordination we manage in politics, the arts, economy and belief systems. At the micro-level, we know that people in conversation talk and move in fine synchrony together: the more synchronised the interactive dance, the better people get on and the happier they are to help each other. A conversation is as much the work of the body as the mind.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

So what happens when our interactions suddenly shift online? For many, work in a Covid-19 world now consists of sitting in front of a screen interacting with a succession of talking heads. Parents and toddlers join their playgroups with online singing and dancing from home. Schoolchildren spend some time in small social bubbles with the same peers, and some time at school online, maybe joining in a virtual class assembly or talking individually to a teacher via Skype. Health appointments such as diagnostic assessments may be held via Zoom, with the practitioner having a glimpse into our personal space at home, a window into our world, raising some new possibilities for social faux pas. Will anyone notice my polka dot pyjama trousers on a Zoom call? What happens if my online delivery driver rings the doorbell? Who might appear in the room, and will they be properly dressed?

These experiences are starkly different from their previous incarnations. For example, a medical appointment would involve preparing for a trip to the local hospital, sitting with strangers in the waiting room and taking part in a conversation – and the necessary interactional dance – with a nurse in the pared-down public space of a clinical setting.

What difference does moving online make to the attunement that skilled therapists and practitioners can build into their conversations with clients? On the Zoom or Room project, funded by the National Institute of Health Research through the Applied Research Collaboration Kent Surrey Sussex, we are looking at exactly this question. The aim is to provide guidelines and good practice to support practitioners in this situation. We are analysing videos of therapeutic conversations taken from in-person and online settings for the same kind of intervention, Video Interaction Guidance. VIG is the perfect setting for this project because trainee practitioners routinely record their meetings and have moved from in-person to online, so there is a ready source of data. What’s more, VIG itself is based on the principle that practitioners and clients will learn and change through observing and reflecting on videos of their own interactions. Much of our work in the ChatLab involves coding video interactions in very fine detail. The quality of interaction often rests on small but significant moments of attunement or disruption. By seeing how these patterns might be different in online meetings, we can understand what factors contribute to people feeling connected when they need to meet online.  As well as analysing the videos, we are conducting interviews and surveys with practitioners and their clients.

It’s too early to give definitive results yet but some things are already clear. First, there are the technical barriers to moving online. Some clients simply don’t have the equipment, internet service or suitable private space to join a meeting online, and there are important data protection and privacy issues, with different agencies making different judgements about what is possible. Second, having to move online has been very disruptive, but has also led to creative solutions being adopted, such as using phone or text-based media for clients who find it uncomfortable to talk via video and having greater flexibility, such as a health visitor ‘popping in’ later in the day if the baby is asleep on the first visit. Then there are those matters of etiquette already mentioned: they might seem trivial but they make a difference to how comfortable people feel.

Our survey is live now for practitioners and educators who meet clients or students online in a supportive capacity. For those who meet students online, we ask that supportive interactions are considered, such as mentoring or supervision meetings, rather than online education.

Take the survey here: http://bit.ly/ZoomRoomExperiences

or sign up for an interview here: http://bit.ly/VIGresearch

Nicola Yuill is a professor of Developmental Psychology and director of the Chat Lab. In addition to Prof Yuill, the Zoom-Room project includes Research Fellow Dr Devyn Glass (Chat Lab) and Education Psychologists Zubeida Dasgupta.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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Do you know what I’m thinking? – a Journey from Mozambique to Sussex

Paloma Manguele is a PhD student in the Attention Lab. She studies mind wandering, a concept she is cautious to translate into her first language, Portuguese. “I guess the word could be ‘divagaçao’ – digression – but not exactly,” she explains. There are not many studies about mind wandering in Portuguese. In fact, there are only a few people researching mind wandering around the world. One of them is her supervisor, Dr Sophie Forster, here at Sussex. Paloma’s research involves cutting edge neuroscience techniques such as functional neuroimaging and electrophysiology to understand the brain underpinnings of spontaneous thoughts.

Paloma’s interest in Neuroscience started in Mozambique when she had just come back from completing a year of postgraduate studies in Norway, and she had secured a teaching position at the Eduardo Mondlane University, a very esteem institution in her country. She thought she would be teaching Clinical Psychology, her undergrad specialisation, but instead, they asked her to teach Neuropsychology and, now from a teacher’s perspective, she fell in love with the subject. “I was teaching about the brain, this amazing device that exists in the Universe, which is so beautiful and fits in our hands. I just wanted to know it more and more.” At the same time, she was also working at the University’s Centre for Studies and Psychological Support providing counselling to students: “I noticed that many of the students’ psychological problems came from the way they perceived the world and how they thought. A bit in line with cognitive theories of mental health. I was very interested in this aspect, why do we think the way we do and how the contents of our thoughts can affect our mental health.” Cognitive Neuroscience was calling her.

“Do you know what I’m thinking,” Paloma would be continuously asked in Mozambique. Obviously not, but what if we could somehow predict or infer what people are thinking? What tools would we need? “I was thinking a lot about spontaneous thoughts and how intrusive they are. How they just pop in our minds when you least expect them and sometimes distract us from whatever we’re doing. So, I was leaning towards mind wandering, although at the time I didn’t even know there was a term for it.” And this is how the idea for her PhD started.

Paloma arrived at Sussex in May 2017, on Neuroscience Day, and she went straight to attend the annual conference organised by Sussex Neuroscience. When Paloma got into the lecture theatre, she realised she was the only Black person in the large room and started doubting whether she belonged there. But the next day her lab mates took her out for a coffee and a hot chocolate at the Bridge Café, and despite the usual awkwardness of meeting people for the first time, they made her feel welcome and part of the community. It’s with a smile that she tells me: “We’re lab sisters now, we support each other”. And she continues: “Even during the lockdown, apart from lab meetings, we kept having our ‘sister’s meetings’ over Zoom, sometimes just to know how each other was doing and to offer help.”

However, three years in she’s still the only Black PhD student at the School of Psychology. “I wonder about that. A percentage of the British population is Black. I’ve taught Black students in the undergraduate and masters courses here. How come I’m still the only Black PhD student? Where do those UG and MSc students go? Where are the British and the international Black students? Wouldn’t they want to continue to a PhD in Psychology and Neuroscience?”

Paloma adjusting the electrodes of a participants

The lack of diversity in academia goes beyond a simple problem of representation. It has a real impact on research. On the first year of PhD, Paloma volunteered in an EEG experiment ran by one of her lab mates. EEG stands for electroencephalography, and it uses electrodes placed on the scalp of the participant to record electrical activity in the brain. Even though at the time Paloma had short hair, the electrodes could not reach her scalp well enough to create good impedance, which is the measure of how good the electrical signal is, so her data had to be discarded. At first, Paloma thought that she was the problem, but when she started running her experiments, she discovered the same pattern with other Black participants. She realised that EEG electrodes were designed with White people’s hair in mind, and they didn’t work as well with her coarse hair. This means that even if researchers are not being purposefully racist, the results will be biased because the data from Black participants will have to be discarded.

“I want to take Neuroscience to Mozambique because it’s not a field there yet and EEG is a very affordable way of conducting neuroscience experiments to answer the questions I’m interested in,” Paloma explains. “It’s more affordable than fMRI and other techniques, but the way it’s currently designed I cannot use it with Black people, who are the majority in Mozambique. The same way science developed EEG with White people’s hair in mind, we can design a similar instrument that can be adapted to other types of hair. This goes back to taking it seriously and doing actual research to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be fixed.”

I wanted to know Paloma’s opinion about being the only Black PhD student in the School of Psychology and what we could do to encourage other Black students to continue to postgraduate studies. This is what she told me:

Why do you think Black students don’t continue their studies into a PhD? 

I’ve never looked at myself as a minority. I come from a country where I am the majority, therefore I do not have racism always on my mind. When I came here and realised that I was the only Black PhD student, it was quite a shock. I knew I was coming to the UK and I didn’t expect there would be many of us, but I was not expecting the underrepresentation to be so shocking. Of course, I should not be expecting for all my mentors to be Black or female, but it would be good if I could have the opportunity to see another Black person in Neuroscience, Cognitive Science or Psychology just to be able to look and think ‘yes, what I’m doing is possible for people who look like me’. It would have been important. I think not having Black people as academic staff could make the students a bit shy to apply.

I started teaching as a doctoral tutor, and I feel that I kind of have this role of being ‘the Black teacher’ and I hope it does make a little difference for some of the BAME students. For most of my PhD, I’ve also taught Clinical Psychology at the International Summer School and the American students are the most vocal ones. They would tell me directly how important it had been for them to find a person from Africa teaching in England. So even if I didn’t have that referent, I can be that person for other minority students. I really hope it helps inspire them to apply.

What can we do to encourage and support more Black students into academia?

We need to do what we do best: research, rigorous research. Because, unfortunately, one Black person can only speak about their own experience and it’s very personal. To understand what the shared experience is, we need to do some research and learn how to categorise things. Conversations like this are a small step, but we need to think on a bigger scale. There are a lot of assumptions on what it means to be a Black student. Those assumptions must be rigorously tested for meaningful changes to occur. They can be tested the same way we test our other research questions, with funding, with research teams, and with collaborations. It should not be the sole role of people within the group to test these assumptions. Racism exists, we live with it, but it impacts society.

We also need to address our personal biases more assertively, in our modules, and maybe even in our lab meetings. My lab does that. We must talk about it. For example, in a school seminar (where I was again the only Black person in the room), someone showed faces of people and categorised them in groups according to their power and, unintendingly (I hope) pointed out that probably some faces would be considered as having less authority in a context of teaching, and those happened to be Black and female ones. Well, I am a Black female teacher in the UK, and I’ve never imagined myself as having less authority than my White counterparts, or when I was teaching in Mozambique. Anyways, I would be delighted to see more research on this before a person makes assumptions and carries them to a seminar.

Do you have any advice for Black students who are thinking of doing a PhD?

I would like to tell BAME students not to be scared, that this path is open to them too. That it might not be the easiest thing, but it is okay, we can do it anyway. Black people have come a long way in history, despite insurmountable circumstances.

Paloma is currently focusing on writing up her thesis, to submit in a few months. But she already has some plans for the future: last academic year she received a grant from the British Experimental Psychology Society to carry out cross-cultural research on mind wandering in Queen’s University Belfast and in Mozambique. They had to postpone it due to Covid-19, but Paloma hopes to resume it once the pandemic is over and extend it to include children. She’s also applying for post-doctoral funding with her supervisor.

Paloma Manguele is a PhD student under the supervision of Dr Sophie Forster. She is also a member of the Sussex Attention Lab.

Find out more about our research on Cognitive Neuroscience.

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Celebrating the 25 Black women making history in UK’s Professoriate

By Dr Varuni Wimalasiri

Overall there were 85 Black Professors in the UK’s Professoriate of 21,000 in 2019 (Rollock, 2019). Whilst 11.2% of White faculty occupy the senior role of Professor, at 4.6%, Black faculty are two and a half times less likely to make to this position (Advance HE, 2018).  There are just 25 Black (African Caribbean) female professors in the UK today, making them the most under-represented group in academic faculty (Rollock, 2019). Research has shown that there are significant barriers to progression including injustices and systemic racism to prevent progress (Arday, 2020). In these circumstances, a celebration of the 25 Black female Professors in our UK Professoriate is significant and important. Especially when we consider the arduous journey’s they have seemingly overcome to arrive at these positions. Earlier this year, photographer Andrew Knight hosted an Exhibition in London called ‘Phenomenal Women’ showcasing portraits of some of these Professors.

Nicola Rollock (2019) of Goldsmiths College led a study to understand reasons for lack of progress in Black female faculty by interviewing 20 out of UK’s 25 Professors, which then led to the release of the ‘Rollock report’.   There are repeated accounts in this report by this group of being undermined regularly in meetings, ignored during daily interactions by colleagues and repeatedly being passed over for progression in favour for lesser skilled faculty. Passive bullying and racial micro-aggressions are reported as being normal place for most of these academics throughout their career. A staggering 72% of Black and Minority ethnic (BAME) members, working in higher education, have been subject to bullying and harassment from managers. Unsurprisingly, quite a few of this group have considered leaving HE institutions altogether at some part of their career (Rollock, 2019). It is likely that most do, as at entry-level the representation of BAME staff is comparable to percentages in the general population in the UK (Advance HE, 2019).

Recent discourses and academic debates have started to unearth deeper levels of institutionalised racism that systemically disadvantage BAME groups (Arday & Mirza, 2018; Rollock, 2016). One such problem arises out of the label ‘BAME’ itself. This category holds all non-White people including- Asian – Asian or Asian British; Bangladeshi, Asian or Asian British; Indian, Asian or Asian British; Pakistani, and other Asian backgrounds, Black – Black or Black British: African, Black or Black British; Caribbean, and other Black backgrounds, Chinese, mixed, other ethnic backgrounds, including Arab. Even the word ‘Black’ is often used interchangeably to refer to people of other BAME backgrounds (i.e. Chinese and Indian ethnic groups) and is reflected in the varying statistics for this group. This blind acceptance of thinking that such a diverse range of ethnic groups can fall into just one category is problematic. Advance HE, the body that reports on statistics in HE has recognised this limitation and started reporting data disaggregated by more detailed ethnicity categories (Advance HE, 2019). Universities UK and National Union of Students in a combined report, have also recognised the barriers to creating realistic equitable outcomes for students due to limitations that arise out of the current system of categorisation (UUK-NUS, 2019).

Moreover, Eurocentric Epistemological perspectives dominate HE curriculum in most disciplines in what Delaguo et al (2002) call an ‘Apartheid of Knowledge’. More Universities are talking about decolonising the curriculum to address this, in a call to challenge long-standing biases and omissions that limit how we understand knowledge and society (Muldoon, 2019). In addition, research methods are also largely dominated by Epistemologies from the Global North where they were initially developed. Research with marginalised communities in the UK and elsewhere are helping us to understand threats to validity that arise out of these limitations. We are starting now to use methods guided by decolonised approaches to understand the lived experiences of ethnic minorities in a way that is true to their authentic lived experience, instead of trying to interpret them through a predetermined lens (Wimalasiri, 2020). Widening participation by deliberately finding ways to engage and include more individuals from BAME communities is also seen as a key to improving inclusion in HE (UUK- NUS, 2019) and is likely to have an impact on retention and progression of BAME communities in HE in the future. Race Charters and Diversity programmes are some of the effective instruments at our disposal to allow us to make effective and lasting changes to redress balances and provide equitable solutions. Seemingly, we are at a pivotal moment in HE history where we are openly starting to acknowledge limitations and shortfalls and actively looking to change these. Changes are afoot, yet there is a long way still to go.  

In reaching academic excellence despite of the significant barriers they have faced these 25 women are making history in UK’s professoriate today!  Their stories help our awareness and understanding of not just Black Faculty but of the strength of the human spirit told in a way to empower us to consider how we might all be part of this change. They are an inspiration to us all and the true embodiment of the acclaimed poem by Maya Angelou, ‘And Still We Rise’!

References

Delgado Bernal, D. & Villalpando, O. (2002) An apartheid of knowledge in academia: the struggle over “legitimate” knowledge of faculty of colour, Equity & Excellence in Education, 35 (2): 169-180.

Rollock, N. (2019), ‘Staying Power’: Career experiences and strategies of UK Black female Professors. UCU report.

Arday, J. (2020) Fighting the tide: Understanding the difficulties facing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Doctoral Students’ pursuing a career in Academia. Educational Philosophy and Theory: 1-8.

Arday, J. & Mirza,  H.S. (2016) Dismantling Race in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.

Wimalasiri, V. (2020) Ethical and Methodological dilemmas in research with Refugee populations: At the intersection of Gender, Displacement and Work. British Academy of Management, Conference on the Cloud,2020.

Dr Varuni Wimalasiri is a lecturer in Organisational Psychology and part of the Social and Applied Psychology Group at the School of Psychology.

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The psychology of youth empowerment through music

by Maruša Levstek

For the past two years, I have been researching young people’s experiences of inclusive music-making and the psychology behind it. I have worked closely with a variety of inclusive music projects also known as the Our Future Music programme, funded by Youth Music and run as a collaboration of five music education hubs across the south of the UK. This has been the biggest focus of my PhD so far, the results of which are currently being reviewed for publication by an academic journal and summarised in this blog.

You can follow Maruša on Twitter @LevstekMarusa

The main aim of this research was to better understand not only the effects music-making has on the young people and their wellbeing, but also how these changes take place and what particular aspects of such environments drive them. I have worked with young people, parents, and creative practitioners involved with inclusive music projects targeting young people recognised as marginalised, at risk, or otherwise in need of support. We used music tutors’ session notes and surveys about young people’s personal and social progress. I have conducted several focus groups and interviews with the staff members, parents, and young people themselves, which discussed how making music affects young people and why. The results enabled us to model the route of youth empowerment through music, which consists of identified developments, psychological mechanisms driving these changes as well as the environmental factors that appeared to be crucial in supporting these processes.

In particular, over the time of their engagement with the sessions, young people appeared to improve musically and socially, especially in their communication skills and ability to work in a team. Growth in confidence was mentioned in every single discussion, visible in young people gradually becoming more comfortable around others and increasingly more active in their engagement with the sessions. Music-making also appeared to have a huge positive impact on its participants’ wellbeing. Many described how young people became calmer and better at managing their moods and emotions while making music. Interestingly, such benefits were visible the most in those young people who seemed to particularly struggle at first. I have encountered incredible stories of socially anxious young people making new friends, non-verbal young people singing out loud and individuals with symptoms of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) sitting still and just listening to music.

When exploring the underlying processes of such developments, there appear to be two main routes, one happening internally and the other in the context of the community formed around music. Making music, writing lyrics and developing personal music taste allows young people to explore and express their emotions and who they are. For this process to take place, I have learnt that it is crucial for tutors to allow the young people freedom of dictating their own musical learning within a structured framework (e.g. session regularity). This remarks the route of self-development, visible in increased wellbeing and calmness described above. The second route of development emphasises the significance of the community formed around the young people, practitioners and in some cases parents and youth workers. Although these young people come from different schools, friendship groups or neighbourhoods, there was always an incredible sense of connectedness, where everyone feels accepted and enough. Many reflected on the power of music in bringing people together, which was further nurtured by the incredible support participants offered each other, especially by those older or more able ones. Additionally, support, acceptance and validation offered by the staff members can be an unusual and unique experience for participants stigmatised by various sources of their marginalisation, for example disability, who might experience new versions of able and competent selves for the first time.

Working with such incredible music projects and being able to combine my love for music and psychology degree has made the best part of my PhD extremely enjoyable and unique. I was astonished by how welcoming and keen to share their experiences everyone has been, which has enabled me to not only survey but observe and experience the transformative power of music on everybody around it. Through this research, I realised how inclusive music projects provide marginalised young people with the tools for becoming active agents in dictating their own development and supporting others around them. Such opportunities can change the ways young people view themselves and even challenge the views of a wider audience through performance. This is why projects like Our Future Music can not only empower individuals, but also communities as a whole.

Please feel free to email me if you would like to reference the results of this project, read the academic paper, or just chat about my research. I truly hope these results will enable the continuation of such amazing projects and motivate for more in the future.

Maruša Levstek is a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Robin Banerjee. Her research project was enabled by Future Creators and the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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Neighbours support each other during COVID-19

By Selin Tekin Guven

Since the beginning of March 2020, COVID-19 pandemic related news has been the main topic in the media. Medical experts have explained different methods to prevent the spread, and authorities in each country have implemented various strategies to deal with the effects of the virus in their country. However, certain groups are still affected disproportionately around the world. People with lower socioeconomic statuses and ethnic minority backgrounds are affected more because of various issues related to social and systemic inequality. 

First, socio-economically lower ethnic minority groups are at higher risk considering their underlying health conditions. Because they have less economic resources, they can only receive minimal support from the health systems. Therefore, they are at greater risk of hospitalisation and death during the COVID-19 pandemic process. Second, overcrowded housing conditions also prevented them to make social distancing and self-isolation. Third, working-class ethnic minority groups are over-represented in key worker jobs such as nursing and medical jobs, cleaning-related jobs (e.g., hospital cleaners), and health care assistants. Therefore, they were not able to take all of the steps that authorities expect everybody to take

On the news and media, we see that people are being blamed for spreading the pandemic. However, the reality was that communities often created their own strategies to adhere to the COVID-19 pandemic precautions, to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and to keep the resources in the community while they were not able to follow the necessary steps from the authorities.

In Turkey, between the end of March and beginning of June, the time that people could spend outside was restricted by the authorities. During the weekends, Eid, and National holidays, the lockdown was applied. Before the restriction, we saw on the media and social media that while people who were under 20 were blamed for spreading the disease by being outside all the time, people who were over 65 were also blamed as if they were ignorant and uncaring. However, the reality was that many of those age groups had to either work in public places (such as open markets) or they had to do their shopping by themselves because there was nobody to take care of their needs. On the media, they voiced their concerns and government gave the responsibility to local authorities and police to address the needs of those people (e.g., in some cities police did the shopping for people who were over 65 years old). However, since different communities may have specific needs, community members needed to identify what type of support was needed because they were already familiar with the available resources and what was missing in the community. Therefore, they took their action by themselves instead of receiving support from the police.

Research suggests that in the case of an emergency or crisis, social support, solidarity, and cooperation can be seen at the collective level to increase the well-being of the community and serve a protective role. In addition, group members can decide which behaviours are safe and unsafe; therefore, they can self-regulate unsafe behaviour and encourage each other to engage in safe behaviour. Considering the COVID-19 situation in Turkey, in some communities, instead of getting help from government agencies, community members and neighbourhoods established some community rules to help each other.

In the apartment building where my family live, there are eight families and some of those family members are considered to be in the risky group (who have chronic lung and heart problems and who are over 65). In addition, we have three employees (my friends) who have to work every day who are also concerned about putting their family members at risk. In addition, we have one high school student who is forbidden to go out because she is under 20. Therefore, we had to take actions together to help our neighbours to be safe and healthy. In order to keep people safe by maintaining distancing, my friends, who had to go to work every day, found separate houses. One of them stayed with her brother and the others stayed with their friends from their workplaces. Considering the ages and health statuses, a high school student and I were two people who had the lowest risk of being affected by the disease. In addition, besides employees, I was the only young person who had a driving licence. Therefore, buying essentials from the shopping centre was my duty. After I washed the resources that I bought from the market, I gave them to the high school student; thus, she could deliver each bag to our neighbours. 

After a while, we realized that in other apartments around our building, there were also other people who are not able to go shopping because of their health conditions. They contacted our families and we were also able to help those people too. We included those neighbours in our apartment’s WhatsApp group, so we could be sure that we meet everybody’s needs. As it was observed in different communities of different countries, in the case of COVID-19, mitigating virus spread became our shared goal so we could make distancing normative (see Templeton et al., 2020 for further examples).  

What we have done with our neighbours was an example of how people unite and help each other during emergencies rather than being ignorant and careless. Even though the public was often misrepresented in the media, in many emergency contexts and different communities, people usually act as one and create ingroup norms to protect their community members to achieve shared goals. In other words, instead of selfish and thoughtless behaviours, we observed solidarity among people who help their community members during an emergency and disasters. 

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Selin Tekin Guven is a PhD student in Social Psychology under the supervision of Prof John Drury and part of the Crowds and Identities Group. This post was originally published on 4th August 2020 in the blog of the Crowds and Identities Research Group.

Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology.

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Green Impact Gold Award

Green Impact is a University-wide scheme, run by the NUS, to encourage Schools to undertake sustainability activities.

Azalea flower

This was Psychology’s first year taking part, and over the last year we have been working on various projects, big and small: maybe you noticed ‘switch off’ lights going up around Pevensey & BEED, our new catering policy, or our digital ‘Go Green Week’ celebrations.

We are delighted to announce that our sustainability work this year has been given a Gold in the 2020 Sussex Green Impact awards earlier this summer. Not only that, we were also given the special commendation of ‘Best Newcomer’, recognising how much we have done in just a short time. A big thank you goes to Fran B, Jolyon, Kiki, Lina, Lisa, Mar, Nicola, and Sophie for everything they have done for Psychology Green Impact this year.

If you are feeling inspired and fancy joining us next year (we are hoping to involve more students), you can join our Green Impact Officer, Dr Charlotte Rae, on Wednesday 29 July at 11am at our Green Impact Summer Social. Charlotte will talk about sustainability, and we’ll learn and share ideas, experiences and tips. No contribution too big or too small to make a difference! Share your ideas and help us live up to that Best Newcomer title!

Find out what the School of Psychology has been doing to be more sustainable and the School’s strategy for the future. 

As always, if you have an idea for a sustainability change you would like to see in the School, send it to Charlotte Rae to get it on our to-do list for 2020-21.

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