By Hause Lin
Many assigned readings for most modules seemed uninteresting at best. Two papers in particular—White’s (1967) “The historical roots of our ecologic crisis” and Hardin’s (1968) “The tragedy of the commons”—come instantly to mind. These titles just sound dull and mind-numbing, especially to a first-year undergraduate. Till today, I still have little idea why I decided to read these two papers then; I might have simply been dutiful, or perhaps I just hadn’t had anything else more exciting to do. But today, I’m glad I bothered to read these two classics a few years ago because they have helped me get to where I am today.
It’s hard to believe I spent half a decade at Sussex. I find it even harder to believe that reading papers with dull-looking titles was why I had decided to remain at—and eventually leave—Sussex. I read them, liked the arguments, and spoke to the lecturer, Dr. Paul Sparks, who assigned them. And that was how I found, by and for myself, my very first adviser.
During one of our first meetings, Paul remarked that social psychology has generally been more concerned with the ‘whys’, whereas neuroscience the ‘hows’, and that the two questions might be incompatible in many situations. It sounded right then. But that I’m now doing social neuroscience research as a graduate student suggests I probably no longer agree with that rather arbitrary why-how distinction. Still, because of his generous sharing of his philosophies, I’ve learnt a great deal about (the problems with) science in general. It was also through him that I met and found my third-year project supervisor, Dr. Eleanor Miles. Both of them, along with the other advisers I met later on, gradually and indirectly convinced me that I should probably do my PhD in North America.
Another thing I’m really glad about is that I took the module “Drugs, Brain, and Behaviour” in my final year, despite not being particularly fond of addiction research. Both of the module lecturers, Drs. Hans Crombag and Eisuke Koya, turned out to be—beyond description. Having spent a significant chunk of their careers in the States, they strongly recommended I do the same, and offered tips on what graduate admissions committees look for in applicants. So, this module was, retrospectively and (un)expectedly, my favourite at Sussex. Moreover, the assigned readings weren’t boring at all; in fact, they were very challenging but tremendously rewarding to read once I’ve dissected them. From this module, I’ve learnt to appreciate the rigour and elegance of neuroscience experiments, which are qualities I would love to see more of in social psychological research.
I particularly enjoyed my final years at Sussex, mainly because I had considerable latitude in deciding what to study and what type of research to do. My advisers, including my academic adviser, Dr. Chris Bird, have been and still are very supportive: I cannot emphasise enough how hard they’ve tried to make sure I get to do my PhD with my favourite potential graduate school adviser.
I’m now in Toronto, studying social neuroscience and decision making with another brilliant adviser, Dr. Michael Inzlicht. We’re adapting the psychometric-neurometric approach so that we can try to model and quantify neural activity when people make decisions. It’s quite an undertaking, especially since it’s my very first project in this laboratory. “Initially, you’re going to struggle because nothing will make sense, but a year later, you’ll be the expert,” said my new adviser during one of our first meetings. Indeed, everything has stretched me quite a bit so far, and I hope things will become slightly more penetrable in the foreseeable future.
Great things sometimes do happen when least expected. Things would have been very different today had I dismissed two papers solely on the basis of their titles several years ago—I might not have remained at Sussex as long as I did, I might not have moved across the Atlantic Ocean, and who knows? One thing for sure, though, is that I’ve always enjoyed the extraordinary privilege of learning from people who are unstinting in their advice. And I’ll definitely meet many more amazing people and work on bigger, more challenging projects in my next half decade in Toronto.