We spoke with Dr David Robertson, who is a Lecturer in the School of Psychological Sciences & Health, as well as the Deputy Course Director for the MSc in Research Methods.
What's your Strathclyde story?
I joined the University in February 2017 as a Teaching Associate before being appointed as a Lecturer in Psychology in August of that year. At the time, the Teaching Associate role was linked to supporting the implementation of our new Psychology Work Placement class in partnership with Dr Lizann Bonnar.
This new course allowed fourth year students to apply their psychological knowledge in real world contexts. This role, and working with Lizann, were an excellent introduction to life at Strathclyde, with a determined focus on always looking to enhance the student experience allied with an aim to put into practice our motto as a place of useful learning.
Since being appointed lecturer, a large part of my role has involved establishing my lab – The Strathclyde Applied Cognitive Psychology Lab – and focusing on my programmes of research which relate to face recognition, identity verification, attention, distractibility, and more recently the psychological factors involved in fake news detection.
I know that seems like quite an eclectic mix but these areas of research that stem from my time as a PhD student in Nilli Lavie’s group at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (attention, distractibility), my work leading the applied strand of an ERC grant in Mike Burton’s lab at Aberdeen/York (face recognition, identity verification), and more recently the collaboration with Tony Anderson (PSH), Mark Shephard and Naris Huhe at the School of Government and Public Policy (fake news detection).
What initially attracted you to Strathclyde?
In a professional sense, having completed my undergraduate degree at Glasgow University, I was already well aware of the excellent work being undertaken at Strathclyde. Even from afar, people within academia always spoke very highly of the University and particularly the collegiate and supportive working environment.
In addition, it looked to be, and remains so, a really exciting time to be part of the School of Psychological Sciences and Health, with a variety of new taught programmes coming on line and the recruitment of excellent colleagues from the GTAP initiative as well as through the traditional routes.
In a personal sense, having worked in a few different cities in the UK it was always my aim to return to Glasgow permanently. It’s a city I’m really fond of, it is large enough to get that city feeling but small enough to retain that feeling of community.
What inspired you to enter your field/profession?
My inspiration to pursue a career in psychological science stemmed largely for the really positive experience I had during my UG dissertation which was supervised by Professor Stephany Biello (Glasgow, Chronobiology Lab). Stephany’s enthusiasm for research, her mentorship and support, encouraged input into the experimental design, ensured rigour in the testing process, prompted us to present posters and talks on the work at conferences – it was a wonderful introduction to research.
In contrast to London, for example, there is a reasonable chance that you might bump into someone you know on Buchanan Street! I’m from Inveraray, on the west coast, so it’s also close enough to be able to see the family on a more regular basis.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in your field?
I’m sometimes asked to speak to PhD students who are just embarking on their doctorate. What I tend to say to them is that the PhD is a process which aims to provide you with the skills to become an independent researcher, your best work will more than likely be ahead of you.
Try and submit your work for peer-review as you progress through the PhD, ensure that you continually develop your professional, science communication, and public engagement skills, and enjoy this period as you are able to focus fully on research.
Moreover, I would endorse the recent move to highlight the importance of wellbeing of PhD students, that it is ok and important to take breaks to refresh your focus.
I remember taking very few holidays during my PhD and often being in the lab until midnight. In retrospect this was unnecessary and counter-productive, and so with my PhD students I make a point of ensuring that they are taking their holidays, to be able to refresh and refocus.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career to date?
I think the most memorable moment to date actually occurred right at the start. I was an undergraduate student and had been looking at perceptual load theory for a critical review essay and I had found a recently published paper which challenged some of its assumptions.
It turned out that Professor Nilli Lavie, who developed the theory, was due to give a research seminar on her work at Glasgow that year. I wanted to ask her about the theory in general and the paper I had found, but being a third year undergraduate, it was still somewhat daunting to think about asking/questioning an established academic.
So I asked Professor Paddy O’Donnell about whether it would be ok to ask this question about a potential limitation to load theory or whether it would be rude – she was a guest speaker after all – he replied, ‘no, by all means ask it, it’s research, it’s a blood sport!’. So, with that in mind, I attended the seminar, I spent the whole 45 minutes rehearsing my question and I don’t recall a thing Nilli said during her talk.
When it came to questions, I had my hand up and down, and then I was selected for the final question. I later found out that this was because Paddy, who was sat at the back of the room had pointed to me to prompt the host to pick me. I asked my question and Nilli was impressed by this question from a student, and Paddy said afterwards there was a good response in the room to our exchange.
Anyway, long story short, Nilli and I spoke after the seminar, I applied for PhD funding and spent the next three years doing my PhD in her lab at UCL! I always say to students, always ask the question, be engaged, it could change your life as it did for me.
What current trends do you see influencing your field/profession?
At present, there is a trend towards the use and implementation of automatic facial recognition systems in policing, for example.
This brings with it important issues relating to consent and civil liberties, and indeed the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee decided last year not to grant the police service permission to introduce this technology. I think such systems do have a place but work is needed to maximise its merit and minimise any civil liberty concerns.
What are your biggest professional challenges?
I am an applied cognitive psychologist, which means that there is a responsibility to get the research out of the lab and into society, to partner with agencies and organisations in order to ensure that we are creating the best research which properly mirrors problems (e.g. identity fraud) that practitioners encounter in the real world.
Tell us about any research or projects you are currently involved in.
There are a number of really exciting projects associated with the lab at present. In terms of super-recognisers we’ve just published a paper based on a multi-university collaboration (Greenwich, Birkbeck, and Southampton) that extended the super-face-recogniser ability to voices.
We have ongoing face fraud detection work with colleagues at the University of New South Wales (Sydney) and along with Tony Anderson (PSH) we’ve started a collaborative partnership with Mark Shephard and Naris Huhe at the School of Government and Public Policy on fake news detection, with our first paper published in PLOS ONE last week.
On the attention and distractibility front, we are developing our partnership with the Strathclyde Sleep Research Unit (SSRU), and colleagues at Oxford and Big Health, to build on our previous sleep and attention related work.
In addition, I co-supervise an MRes student with Dr Andrew Wodehouse at DMEM which relates to a project on psychological factors, product design, and consumer engagement. The opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across the University really is one of the highlights of working at Strathclyde.
Any special thanks or shout-outs you'd like to give to colleagues who have helped or inspired you throughout your career here?
I’ve been so fortunate to have encountered many outstanding people who I learned, and continue to learn, so much from.
Pre-Strathclyde I worked with Professor Stephany Biello (Glasgow) Professor Nilli Lavie (UCL), Professor Mike Burton and Dr. Rob Jenkins (York) – each of these individuals were so generous with their time, they were outstanding mentors, and all round fantastic people.
Since joining Strathclyde, I have to say that within PSH I am so lucky to have a brilliant group of colleagues – #TeamStrathclydePsychology – it’s a pleasure to work with each of them.
Professor Madeleine Grealy who was head of School when I joined, is someone I hugely admire. She has been a terrific mentor, colleague, and friend, and I continue to learn from her example all the time.
If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be?
Aside from Psychology, my other passion is for History. I’d switch jobs with an archaeologist working somewhere like Pompeii or Herculaneum, getting to see up close what real life was like during the height of the Roman Empire for example.
What keeps you busy outside of work?
I’m keen on running – I’ve completed the marathons in Amsterdam and Edinburgh, and for the latter I was able to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital, which through a PhD project I was able to see the excellent work which is done there in collaboration with the UCL Institute of Child Health. I’ve signed up for the Loch Ness marathon at the end of this year, but training has been somewhat slow to date!
During lockdown, cycling has tended to take over, I got my new bike and cycling equipment through the ‘Cycle to Work Scheme’, I’d thoroughly recommend that to colleagues. I do shorter rides during the week, then during the weekend I tend to take a long ride along the Forth and Clyde canal to the Kelpies and back, the route is in excellent condition for cyclists.
What is your guilty pleasure?
It’s a whisky, The Balvenie (Caribbean Cask), with one ice cube, served in The Ben Nevis bar in Finnieston – that tends to soothe the paper rejection notification or seemingly unreasonable comments from Reviewer 2 that may have occurred that week!
In one word, describe what Strathclyde means to you.