Sue Fletcher-Watson

Director, Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre, University of Edinburgh

And - published author


Think about what makes you feel happy and energised.

What do you do?

I am a psychologist which means I'm interested in how people's minds work - how their thoughts and attitudes change their behaviour, but also where those thoughts and attitudes come from. How are they shaped by our genes, our brain structures, our families, and our experiences?

Specifically, I'm most interested in how children learn and develop, and - even more specifically - I'm interested in differences in how children learn and develop. Differences like being autistic, or being born very early.

Why did you choose this field?

When I was at school I had a chance to volunteer on Wednesday afternoons in a local special school. I spent time in a class of seven autistic children, mostly working one-to-one with them. It was really transformational. I was intrigued by the way in which they interacted with people and objects, which seemed so different from the way I interacted with the world. I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to learn more about autism and ideally do something to help autistic children be better understood, and to thrive.

I had a dilemma while I was a student at University about whether to go down the practitioner route - maybe becoming a teacher or an educational psychologist - or whether to stay in research. I decided that research was right for me. I like the idea that each study I do is like a grain of sand in a pile of knowledge that will be there forever, helping millions of human beings in the future - even though my study is only a teeny tiny part of that pile.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

I recently had my first book published, which I co-wrote with an academic in my field who I've admired for decades - Francesca Happé. Its amazing to me that we wrote something together, and that it will hopefully influence psychology students for years to come.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I am really excited by the intellectual challenge of the work I do. I have an incredibly varied day, switching between multiple projects all at different stages. One moment I'm trying to articulate a brand new research idea, the next I'm advising a student on their data analysis, and then I'm doing a podcast about our latest findings. It's incredibly fun. I also love the fact that my colleagues are really passionate about helping people and work incredibly hard to make a positive difference in people's lives.

Best advice for next generation?

When you're trying to figure out what you want to do in your working life, don't think about jobs in terms of "careers" and "vocations". Instead, think about what makes you feel happy and energised. Do you want to work in a team, or are you a solo operator? Do you want a lot of control over your work, or would you prefer less responsibility? Are you excited by new discoveries, or would you prefer the satisfaction from perfecting a technique, doing it exactly right? STEM offers all these different kinds of professional experiences and getting those right is what's going to make you satisfied in your work.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

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