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Psychology Beyond The Consulting Room

May 10-16 is Psychology Week, an initiative of the New Zealand Psychological Society to let people know more about the breadth and depth of how psychology contributes to our communities. When most people think of psychology, they think of a therapy room of some sort or another—one person helping another to change their feelings, thoughts, or behaviours. That is what a lot of psychologists do—working in mental health, physical health, correctional and educational settings to help people make their lives better. However, there is a whole lot more to psychology than this—you might be surprised at the things psychologists, and psychology researchers, do.

Vincent Reid, for example—he’s Professor of Psychology and Head of School at the University of Waikato’s School of Psychology. A Kiwi born and raised, he studied at University of Auckland before taking a little holiday in England and getting stuck in there, doing a Ph.D. in psychology, trying to understand the amazing development that takes place in the brains of babies and young children. Vincent’s done research on how infants’ motor skills and perceptual development work together—and how he’s going backward in time, trying to figure out what’s going on in the visual system before birth. We know that babies like to look at faces…do fetuses before birth like this, too? How could you tell? Vincent’s got a Marsden grant to try to figure this out, shining light through mum’s belly into the world of the fetus, working with the Waikato DHB’s ultrasound clinic. Why does that matter? Well, as Vincent says, they are literally creating an entirely new field of research--prenatal visual development—that could open doors into understanding human development and using fetal behaviour to monitor and improve fetal health.

Rod Corban is another type of psychologist—he started out studying, he says, to avoid driving a truck and digger for his father…and eventually found he was interested in human behaviour—what makes people do what they do. He studied at Auckland and decided that instead of taking an academic route, with a Ph.D., he wanted to study the brand new discipline of Sport Psychology. He got a scholarship to go to the University of Birmingham’s School of Sport and Exercise Science, and put together the theories he’d learned at university, the skills he developed volunteering for Youthline and Lifeline, and knowledge of how to turn research into practice in helping athletes make the best of themselves. He came back to New Zealand nearly 20 years ago, completed a postgraduate diploma to enable him to be registered as a psychologist, and has been working with high performance athletes and teams ever since, helping them to manage the intense pressures they face, build resilience and keep some balance in their lives so they can stay well and play well. Rod says some of the things he has been most proud of are his work providing mental health first aid workshops to New Zealand Netball teams and staff, and also having contributed to the growing discipline of sport psychology in New Zealand.

Bridget Burdett trained as an engineer, and was drawn to transport as the most ‘human-centric’ area of civil engineering. From there, she became interested in the psychology of driver behaviour and road safety, and went in deep, earning her Ph.D. in applied cognitive psychology with the University of Waikato’s Traffic and Road Safety research group. Her research was on mind wandering during driving…finding out that most of us are only thinking about driving about 20% of the time. She also explored things like the relationship between driving on familiar roads and crash risk. Now, Bridget works as a transport engineer and researcher at MRCagney consultancy, and is focusing on projects that improve human health and wellbeing, and promoting good outcomes for the planet. One of her current projects is looking at the experiences of disabled people accessing transport. Bridget says that understanding psychology, and particularly human factors and how people think, helps her to see systemic problems in the interaction between people and their worlds, and use what she learns to have a positive influence on how roads and transport systems are designed and used by people all over New Zealand.

Carrie Cornsweet Barber comes by psychology honestly; both her parents studied psychology; her father was a professor of psychology in the US. They were both experimental psychologists, though—studying how the visual system works, for example, how eye movements are important to our being able to see anything at all. Carrie found the whole breadth of psychology fascinating, but settled on clinical psychology with an interest in children—her Ph.D. was on how children’s peer relationships were related to their emotional adjustment. She did a mix of clinical work and research, gradually focusing her interest on how we can get families off to a good start by supporting parents during pregnancy and those critical early years. Carrie brought her family here to New Zealand in 2007, and now teaches and does research at the University of Waikato. Much of her energy goes into developing and studying accessible self-help tools and strategies for parents, and providing professional development for midwives, GPs, nurses, and antenatal educators—people on the front lines of supporting growing families. Over the last few years, she has lead the team developing Positively Pregnant, a New Zealand app to guide parents through the social and emotional challenges of pregnancy and early parenting.

Contact for more information: Carrie Barber, Waikato Branch Chair, New Zealand Psychological Association, and senior lecturer, University of Waikato School of Psychology: 021728796 or ccbarber@waikato.ac.nz

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