Dr Antonia Hamilton is a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in UCL. Her research interests include applying models of motor control to action understanding and social cognition.
Interviewer: Aleya Aziz Marzuki ; Transcriber: Yulia Petrina
Aleya: Could you start by introducing yourself and what you do within the Institute?
Antonia : Sure. I’m Antonia Hamilton and I’m running the Social Neuroscience group, so I study a variety of stuff about non-verbal social interaction, mainly, imitation. And we study people with autism; sometimes we do fMRI to see what’s going on in their brain during social interaction. We’re now doing quite a lot of virtual reality, we do functional near-infrared spectroscopy… anything that tries to get out social cues, how social cues are produced and processed, understood, and used in social behavior.
Aleya: So can you expand on some of the research that you’ve described?
Antonia : Which bit are you interested in?
Aleya: What do you think you are the most involved in at this point?
Antonia: It’s a big grant that we have with virtual reality, so that’s a thing that we’re working quite hard on, in various ways, because we’re interested in how people are using social cues interactively. Traditional studies would take two people, put them in a room and have them interact, and one of them might be instructed to behave in certain ways. But I find these things really problematic, because you just don’t know if people are behaving in the way they’re instructed, or what they’re doing, and you can’t make the situation repeatable across lots and lots of different trials. So we’re using virtual reality to have people interact with avatars, and then we can see the avatar do exactly the same thing for every participant, we can see people respond differently to being imitated compared to not being imitated. And we can easily change the character we stick to our avatar – like the age, and race, and gender – and see how people behave and respond to the same behavior coming from different avatars. That kind of thing, which is quite fun.
Aleya: Interesting! Why did you choose to pursue a career in academia?
Antonia: Well, I guess I wanted to do research since I was at least about fifteen or so. I’ve always liked studying things, and I wanted to get answers to things I didn’t know the answers to. At school, they didn’t teach us anything about brains. When we did GCSE’s I decided it would be an interesting thing to go and study.
Aleya: So what did you do your undergrad in?
Antonia: Psychology. Officially, it was Psychology, Philosophy, and Physiology, but, really, I only did Psychology. (laughs)
Aleya: Can you expand on your academic background?
Antonia: I was an undergrad at Oxford, and I worked as a research assistant in a baby lab, and I found it was ridiculously hard work testing babies, and I’m not doing that again! (laughs) Then I did my PhD in motor control at the Institute of Neurology, on the other side of the square. And then I did a postdoc at ICN in autism, then another postdoc in the States, doing fMRI. Then I got a job at University of Nottingham for six years – a lectureship. And then I came back to UCL a couple of years ago.
Aleya: So why did you want to lecture as well as do research? What’s the motivation behind that?
Antonia: I guess, to me, that’s the obvious career path to go for. I know people sometimes try to get fellowships, but I think it’s very hard to have a career that is a pure research career, these days. Universities run teaching, and the stable jobs tend to be the ones that have some teaching, and it’s very rare for people to not do any teaching at all. So, as an entry-level job, the fellowships are almost always time-limited – you know, you’ve got a three-year fellowship, and a five-year fellowship, and then the next thing and the next thing. Whereas a lectureship is a permanent position, so you’ve got that much more stability. You can be a full member of the University, you’ve got a seat at the table and weight in the decision-making, in a way people in fellowships don’t always have, especially the more junior fellowships.
Aleya: On to more gender-gap-related questions: The Higher Education Statistics Agency, HESA, has reported that less than one in five professors in UK universities are women. Do you think such a gender gap exists at UCL?
Antonia: Things vary wildly by discipline. You know, some disciplines and subdisciplines within things have much bigger gender problems than others. And one of the things that I very much like about Cognitive Neuroscience is that it’s a pretty well-balanced field. I mean, it’s not perfect, but, in general, it’s fairly equal. When I did my PhD in motor control, it was much more male-dominated. And, compare it to Physics and Engineering… the situation is definitely worse.
Aleya: So in terms of lectures and everything, do you think there’s a balance, in your field?
Antonia: I wouldn’t want to say without having the stats, because I think that, still, at the more senior levels, there are probably more men, and, you know, across Psychology as a whole, we do still need to improve, especially at the level of Professor. If you add the numbers of the men and women, there are probably more men than women. But the field doesn’t feel immediately unbalanced in the way that some other areas do. But, you know, there’s also a lot of Athena SWAN stuff, too, to improve it.
Aleya: Why do you think such a disparity exists? And, keeping in mind that, when you start out at undergraduate level, there seem to be more females than males who are pursuing higher education? Why do you think this gap goes on as you go up to professorships and lectureships?
Antonia: There’s been an enormous amount of studies on this, and I know a lot of people who are doing even more detailed work into this. There’s lots of evidence now that people have unconscious biases that women, as well as men, will look for different characteristics in women, compared to men. They may be more inclined to promote the men or push them forward – there’s a lot of evidence that this might grow inequalities, these teeny-tiny differences in things. But, over the course of a career, there could be a difference. But I think this is not just in Psychology or even just in academia, I think you see exactly the same in any other profession – you know, in law, and in business… and things could be worse. (laughs)
Aleya: So is this kind of disparity in more humanities-based things as well as science-based things?
Antonia: Oh yeah. I mean, Philosophy, has had some big problems. There may be other areas of the humanities where it’s not such a big problem. But, actually, I think that, because there is so much interest in the issue in science, because there are a lot of initiatives and things like Athena SWAN, and people are paying attention to it, at least, in the departments I’ve been in, you come across people who are making an effort to be supportive and conquer these unconscious biases.
Aleya: Do you think these biases stem from people applying to universities or the people who are accepting students to universities?
Antonia: I think it stems from… I mean, you ask three- and four-year-olds: here are two people, one of these people likes playing with dolls, which one likes playing with dolls? And they say, the girl. You know, these are stereotypes that people are picking up incredibly early on, and they’re very very deep-rooted. So the studies suggest that the way to overcome these biases in selection committees is to acknowledge them and think explicitly about how to make sure we’ve got enough female applicants, to make sure we’ve got enough people applying. There are also biases in the number of people who put themselves forward, and that’s a tricky one to deal with. There will always be the question of advertising – how do we advertise a job such that women want to apply for it?
Aleya: Do you think it’s because women would be less inclined to pursue lectureships and professorships because they’ve started a family?
Antonia: People leave academia for all sorts of reasons. There could be a lot of perfectly good reasons – you know, there aren’t enough jobs in academia. So, you know, of people who start a PhD – only about five per cent of them end up with academic jobs, we need lots of other things for people to do. But I guess, society makes some things easier to do than others. The societal expectations will vary… If a man left an academic job to care for his children, people might be a little more surprised than if a woman did.
Aleya: I see. That’s true. So what is your motivation for staying in academia, this whole time?
Antonia: Uh, I guess, as long as it’s fun, I’ll keep doing it. (laughs)
Aleya: What do you find most fun about it?
Antonia.: Oh, you know, working with all the people in my lab, and building stuff – look at this! (holds up device) We’re building a camera. This is a teeny-tiny cam, video camera, and we’re going to go and see some people to do 3D printing and, like, make things to record your face. And the virtual reality is fun, and always working with nice people, and doing interesting stuff, and doing new stuff. (laughs) All of that.
Aleya: That sounds like a lot of fun! So, this is the last question: do you have any words of motivation or advice for budding girl researchers and lecturers out there?
Antonia: I guess, same advice to everyone: do things that are fun, and… have variety! You know, one of the things that I love about being at UCL is that there are so many interesting people to collaborate with, from different groups, and you can get a lot of different skills across different fields, which I think is very useful.
‘Bridging the Gap’ is an initiative by the Bedford Bugle to educate (ourselves and) the public about the factors and consequences of gender disparity in academia. We hope our readers will enjoy this series of interviews with top researchers in the field. We also hope that by bringing these issues to light, awareness can be created, followed by positive change.
Psychology and Language Sciences Division’s Athena SWAN page here