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?”
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.
Find out more about our research on Cognitive Neuroscience.