Expert Breakfast Report for 19 September 2018: Dr Tamlin Conner, Dept of Psychology

Dr. Conner - among other things - talked about the importance of finding out about yourself in order to embark on the life pattern that suits you best, and indicated how you could go about finding this out - AND eat fruit and veg and be happy!

Dr Conner took an interesting approach to describing how she arrived at her present position by ‘reverse engineering’ her life story. Currently she is on the Otago Faculty in the Dept of Psychology, where she has been for the last 10 years, and before that had a two year post-doctoral Fellowship in a Medical School in Connecticut. She found that working in a psychiatry department after her psychology background placed her in a very different, much more regimented world. Prior to that Dr Conner taught five papers at the private University, Boston College in Newton, Mass., including statistics and psychology, but realised how much she missed research. This prompted her to look for a post-doctoral position.

Before teaching at Boston College, Tamlin had studied for a PhD, also at Boston College following an honours degree in psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her High School experience was in California, where she was born. Her desire to experience other places and cultures, as well as develop independence and establish her own life, prompted her subsequent travels. “I always promised my mother I would move back west, but overshot it it by a few thousand miles, so now I am in New Zealand.”

Find Out What Work Suits Your Personality
At the beginning of Dr Conner’s tertiary studies, like many others starting out in psychology, she was very interested in going into clinical psychology and helping people, but when she actually experienced working one-on-one with psychiatric patients as an undergrad, she realised that “I did not want to help people, actually”. - At least, not in that way. “You have to have a particular disposition to work with people who have severe mental health issues, and realised very quickly that that wasn’t me.”

A large part of finding out about herself happened during her undergraduate years, and what career might work well with her personality. At the same time, some of her time was taken up with teaching, which she found very energising, “So pay attention to what energises you versus that which drains you.” The most attractive form of teaching for her was - not at High School, where students may not want to take the classes - plus she felt it might not be a sufficient challenge for herself. The obvious course of action was teaching at University.

“Aim as high as you dare, as high as you can"

From her own background, with no academics in the family, the idea of her becoming a university professor* was certainly aiming high. Also, her High School grades had not indicated major academic ability. But her innate curiosity and drive began to flourish as an undergraduate student, which would eventually lead her to apply for PhD programmes in social psychology. [See web ref. in ‘Other Matters’ below for reference to personality test].

Bumps in the Road?
Because she was aiming ‘really high’ when embarking on her PhD Tamlin was uncertain about achieving this objective. During the first year in particular she was more or less constantly having to mentally encourage herself to continue, “Come on, you can do this.” - through all the demands that were put on her, “My mind was expanding week by week”.

The next bump occurred when, at the end of her second year, her original PhD supervisor left the College, but in fact this potentially damaging event turned out to give very positive returns.
First, it enabled her to switch tracks somewhat onto something she found more interesting, and second, her new supervisor was using hand-held digital devices to survey large numbers of people. This allowed Tamlin to track people’s emotional states over time, and also she was learning about emotion science, well-being and mental health with her new supervisor. Dr Conner used this experience to “establish myself as a world leading expert in the use of smart-phone surveys to understand people’s experience.”

Five Ice-creams a Day is Too Many

Prompted by a question, Dr Conner returned to her decision to take on a post-doc position having been teaching for two years. This teaching position involved a great deal of teaching, and she found that, as well as missing doing research, she was enjoying teaching less because she was doing so much of it. “Imagine if you like ice-cream, but you’re eating, like, five ice-creams a day, at some point you get sick of the ice-cream. I only want a little bit of ice-cream, so I can really enjoy my ice-cream”.

The post-doc was in a research-oriented psychiatry department - not huge numbers of patients, more like a teaching hospital. It was run very much like a business, even requiring staff to clock in and out, with an 8.30 am to 6 pm day - but no expectation of work outside those hours. It proved to be really good in terms of developing discipline, “which allowed me to focus much more on my writing.”

Her work included looking at such things as genetic factors and use of alcohol that may be related to emotional experience.

Eat Fruit and Be Happy!
Over the last five years Dr Conner has been pursuing research linking psychology with nutrition - prompted by an approach by a Nutrition Masters student asking her to co-supervise a project looking at stress-related eating.

Their survey required people to report on what they ate and how they felt. A statistical study showed two unexpected results. First, no correlation whatsoever between stress and eating junk foods, and second, the more fruit and vegetables people ate, the happier they felt. Dr Connor had never encountered such a strong relationship as that “between fruit and vegetable consumption and feelings of energy, vitality, feeling enthusiastic, even feeling calm, relaxed and cheerful.”
This research is ongoing, with particular emphasis currently on possible mechanisms, one finding being that it is unlikely to be due to feeling virtuous because of what you eat!

Other matters touched on included:

Choose a career that will match the strengths of your personality.

  • Find your own personality by carrying out the ‘Big 5 Personality Traits’ (also known as the ‘Five Factor Model’ or FFM) e.g.
  • Possible differences in eating grass-fed and corn-fed beef on physical and mental health.
  • Take care if you move overseas - Problems of being an immigrant and, if you settle permanently, wanting to be in both places, where your family is, and where you have emigrated to.
  • When reviewing scientific publications, check a) how it was funded, and b) whether it was researcher led (generally good), or industry/funder led (might not be so good).
  • Be aware of the difference between meta-analyses of published material, and meta-analyses that include both published and unpublished results - they may produce quite different conclusions, e.g. tranquillisers.
  • When applying for a post, be aware of the employment process - posting, application, interviews, acceptance, that often take some time.

*Note that ‘professor’ in the US is not equivalent to ‘Professor’ in New Zealand.

Posted: Friday September 28, 2018