Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Figures behind the Figures: Dr Heather Ferguson

Each term I feature a different Kent award winner in the Research Services newsletter, looking at their research and discussing their career path and funding track record. I thought it would be worth adding these to the Blog. In April I featured Dr Natalia Sobrevilla Perea. This time the spotlight falls on Dr Heather Ferguson in the School of Psychology.


Dr Heather Ferguson


Heather Ferguson is one of only a handful of academics at the University who have been awarded a prestigious grant from the European Research Council (ERC). When she was called up to be interviewed for the last stage of the selection process, her husband and young son went with her.

‘The ERC was actually very good,’ she said. ‘They gave us a separate waiting room, and being away from the tension and pressure of waiting with the other candidates probably helped.’

It was a lucky break for Heather, and she readily admits that getting grants often involves a heavy slice of luck. But then luck is more often about how you respond to the cards that are dealt you than to any mysterious intervention. For instance, when she missed a Leverhulme deadline by a day it gave her the chance to completely overhaul her project, and it allowed her to produce a much stronger, more viable project as a result. It was funded, when the original might well have been rejected.

Heather is a cognitive psychologist. Her research focuses on the interface between cognitive processes and social interactions, and specifically on how we understand and respond to other people’s perspectives during communication.

Her work requires the involvement of a large number of participants in psychological tests, using equipment such as an eye tracker. As such, funding for her is not just desirable but essential. Over the past five years she’s had five grants totalling almost £1.5m, and has had experience of applying to the British Academy, the ESRC and the Nuffield Foundation, as well as Leverhulme and the ERC.

‘I was always told that, as an early career researcher, I should start small and work up,’ she said. ‘There’s some truth in that, but you should balance that with having vision and ambition. The value of a good idea should not be underestimated, and funders are sometimes willing to back an exciting project from someone with less experience if you can make the case and reassure them with a strong and robust framework for the project.’

Most of all she’s not afraid to fail. ‘My ERC grant was my second attempt,’ she confided. ‘It’s never a waste of time to write a proposal, I’ve learnt to really enjoy the process. By thinking through a project it helps you to plan out your research, and gives structure to future proposals - or even generates ideas for other papers.’

Nevertheless, applicants need to be organised, and in the eight weeks that it took Heather to prepare her ERC application she tried to clear her commitments as much as possible. She still had some student meetings, teaching, departmental meetings and UCAS events, but she was able to manage the rest of her time to focus on the application. As both a new parent and a new ERC award holder, this organisational ability will not only be useful in the years to come, but will be crucial. 

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