Interview and Editing by Yajie Xie (Guest Interviewer) and Aleya Marzuki (Bugle Team)
Dr Jeremy Skipper is an experimental psychologist studying the neurobiology of language use. Known for his burning interest in the organisation of language in the brain, as well as his quirky fashion choices, the Bugle Team decided Jeremy would be an interesting person to chat to. And we were not mistaken.
What made you interested in psychology and why did you become a neuroscientist in the end?
Well, when I was a younger, I was a very bad child. I got into a lot of trouble all the time. From a young age, I was interested in how other people work and I was very interested in my own behavior: why I was getting into trouble, why I was always getting suspended from school. One of my proudest accomplishments was when I was kicked out of Physics class 23 times, 24 being the limit. Once you hit 24, you were kicked out of school.
(After school) My goal was to find a college that would accept me and that was on a beach. So I only applied to schools on beaches. I got rejected from pretty much all of them. Finally a couple accepted me: (a college in) Hawaii and University of North Carolina in Wilmington. I couldn’t go to Hawaii because I couldn’t take my car, so I went to Wilmington.
When I was in college, I was more interested in doing drugs and drinking than actually becoming a serious academic. But then I met somebody who was very smart, and I really wanted to impress her. She worked in a library, so I started going to the library and we started talking. I started to realise how cool psychology and philosophy really was.
During that time period, I became interested in neuroscience after I read these case studies where people with neurological damages did really strange things. I decided to go to graduate school for psychology and neuroscience. But the problem was that I screwed up so badly earlier in life that when I applied to graduate school nobody would take me. So instead of pursing a career in academics, I decided to go and be homeless. And I lived in a car for several years.
In that time period, I took all these books on psychology and neuroscience with me, which I read the entire time. I felt that I really wanted to go to graduate school so I applied again. I wrote a short story (for my application), a science fiction story. Nobody accepted me except for one school, the University of Chicago.
We heard that you have a new grant regarding the development of a new hearing aid. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
When I was in graduate school, the first paper that I ever wrote was in response to a paper that I read and thought was really amazing. That paper challenged the traditional view that everything must come through the eyes in order for vision to occur. In that paper they described a device where people sit on a chair and on the back of the chair there is a device that would poke you in the back. People would wear glasses, and on the glasses there were cameras that would translate the visual world into pokes on your back. With some training, people turned out to be able to see by sitting on this chair.
Since I wrote that paper, back in 1999, I’d been always thinking that maybe you could do something similar for audition. So I want to see whether you can make a device that allows you to hear but not through your ears. I wrote this grant, the idea was to build a very high density electrode array attached to the roof of the mouth. And the idea is to simulate what the cochlea does. I hoped that with a little bit a training, people would be able to hear information through this device that they’d wear on the roof of their mouths.
We think it’s an important step for the following reason. A lot of people who have hearing loss only have the options of using hearing aids or cochlear implants. The problem with hearing aids is that they amplify noise as well as the stuff that you are trying to hear. We thought we’d do something risky and see whether we can help people to hear through other ways.
What do you enjoy most about being a psychologist?
I love that I get paid to do what I essentially feel to be the adult-equivalent of playing in a sand box. I just love doing research. I love trying to figure out how the brain allows us to communicate with one another. And I love doing that in multiple forms, whether building devices or putting people in brain scanners, and observing how the brain processes complex everyday language.
To be honest, speech production and language comprehension are probably the most complex things we do as humans and we do them so effortlessly. We never think about the mechanisms underlying how we do them.
I really enjoy working with students and my favourite part (of working with students) is when they have, like, a moment of discovery. When you think you’ve figured out a piece of the puzzle, everybody’s face lights up. It’s really pleasurable.
How do you think about the current higher educational system? Do you think there is anything that should be improved?
This is going to be published (laughs).
I think we are in a problematic state right now in higher education. I think UCL is admirable in its belief that we should be doing more research embedded teaching. The way to become a scientist is to do science and I think all of our education should be structured so students are learning by actually reading primary source material and by actively engaging in said material. This includes discussion with faculty members and by doing studies. I think it will be a slow process to move the university into that direction, given that for universities to have true research embedded teaching, smaller classes are required. Right now we have very large classes.
Another challenge that I am afraid to say out loud is that I think it’s a mistake to keep charging higher and higher tuition fees. One of the reasons that I came to London from the US is that I admire that education here is cheaper than in the US. I came from an institution that charged 50,000 dollars or more a year. I think that’s problematic. Everyone should be given access to free or affordable education.
You mentioned that you traveled and lived in a car for some years before you went to graduate school. What did you learn from that experience?
During that time, I had the complete freedom to move around the world and learn from it. I went to small towns and talked to people in drug stores and restaurants. I learnt from people who had quite different perspectives of the world. I thought about these differences and what they meant. I also thought about the world that we are actually in, which is a beautiful place that is being destroyed by our actions. I also had a lot of freedom to read. Instead of being told that I need to go to college, to get a degree, I had the freedom to discover for myself what was fascinating and interesting about the world at my own pace. It really opens my mind to material in a self-directive way which I think is really important. Learning for yourself, instead of being told that this is the path that you should take, makes life a lot more enjoyable.
When I got ready to go to graduate school, I was no longer a bad student who was more interested in showing off. I was a person who brought myself to the academic table. I knew I wanted to study because I discovered that for myself. That was a really important discovery.
What’s the inspiration behind your wardrobe?
These are not my pajamas, I should clear this up first, sometimes people confuse these for pajamas but they are actually pants! I’ve not worn shoes for twenty years. My mother told me that my feet smelled from birth. I always like to wear open shoes to share that with the world. But I actually enjoyed not wearing shoes for the past twenty years because I like that people engage you. They always ask me why I don’t have shoes on, it gives me this unique opportunity to share myself with other people. Because for some reason, people aren’t scared to stop you and say something about your attire but they are scared to talk to you otherwise. I always enjoy when people interact with me. Every single time people ask me that question, I’ll make up a different story.
Any advice for students here?
I highly recommend taking some time, maybe not two years in a car, to figure out for oneself what direction one wants to have. I also high recommend engaging in the world. Right now, we’re in dire times and we all need to work together to save our environment above else.