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Professor Sophie Scott


Sophie Scott is a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow and Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.  Her research is on the neural basis of human communication, with a particular emphasis on how our brains decode the range of information in the voices we hear, and how that can be affected by hearing loss or stroke.

What science has always benefitted from is a great diversity of people doing it.

On becoming interested in science

I got a big science book of facts, when I was about seven, as a school prize – which was for English not science, weirdly – and I just loved it.  I loved the scope and the different stories and things.  Science seemed to be going from the natural world through to physics and bodies and personality and everything and I just…it was just absolutely engaging, it remains so exciting to me, that book.  Even just seeing the book it really kind of fires up that excitement again.

On my science heroine

My science hero, or heroine, is a woman called Dorothy Bishop, who’s based in Oxford, who simply does the best science of anyone I’ve ever seen.  She’s interested in children and how they acquire language and how that can go wrong, but what I really love about her is how she takes that question and she doesn’t approach it with ideas about what is likely to be the case, she has a very open mind and she uses whatever it takes, from genetics through to brain scanning, to understand what’s going on. And I’ve always thought, what a fantastic example of a really excellent psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist who’s interested in a very important question and who approaches it in a very open minded and intelligent way.

On the joy of science

I think the bottom line is: if you really like finding things out, you’ll like science.  So I can honestly say, I’ve been a scientist now for, ah, ooh, gosh, 22 years and I still…when I sit down with a data file that tells me the results of an experiment, I am excited.  I want to know what’s happened.  You’re finding out something you didn’t know before about how people work, about how the world works, and that’s just, perfection.  It’s just so interesting.

On the rising popularity of science

I think that’s really good that it gets people paying attention, because if they pay attention to it, they might get interested in it, and if they get interested in it, they might start doing it for a living, and what science has always benefitted from is a great diversity of people doing it.  We tend to think of science as, you know, ‘Here’s the great scientist in the lab, it’s a man, and he’s got a white coat on and he’s doing some science, and there might be some minions’, but that’s not how it works.  There’s always loads and loads of scientists of all different shapes and sizes and they’re all doing good science and it works at a community level so the more we can attract people to be a part of that community, the better chance we have of doing good science.

People have always projected all sorts of things onto science that they want to see there.  They want to see the bearded man in the white coat rather than seeing how science works and, you know, it’s because historically, bad things have happened in the world and sometimes people have associated…that’s been associated with science, much like it’s been associated with all sorts of other things, like religion and education, you know, it’s not, the thing itself isn’t what causes the bad stuff.  I think sometimes people fear what they don’t know and the more science is ineffable to them the more likely they are to fear it so actually seeing what scientists do, they’re not sitting round hatching evil plots, you know, they’re more important, they’re more likely to find out that’s not what’s happening and what really is happening is this fantastic enterprise of finding out how the world works.

I think people can always be quite surprised when you realise, because you can be so embedded in this stuff you don’t realise, gosh, this iPhone came from somewhere or that vaccination came from somewhere, but it’s…I think it’s always an issue and it’s something that I try and prioritise when I’m working, is to show the context between the science I do and what it actually means for people’s lives.  And then I think it lets you engage with a level of understanding about the world which gives you just a different sort of perspective so it’s…science is our way of finding out about the world, like art is a way of finding out about the world, there’s no one way of doing this and I think it just gives you a richer sense of experience and interest in the world.  You can suddenly become interested in something that yesterday you didn’t even know was a thing that happened; that’s what science can do for you and I think it’s, um…I mean, I find this when I go off to look at areas of science that aren’t where I work and you find it draws you in, it’s just fascinating.

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