Essi Viding, a developmental psychologist at University College London, won the 2010 Wiley Prize in Psychology on 4 May from the British Academy and scientific publisher Wiley-Blackwell.
What was a pivotal moment in your career?
I was on track to becoming a clinical psychologist, but after getting my undergraduate degree in psychology at University College London (UCL) I stayed on to work as a research assistant with James Blair, an expert in psychopathy, hoping to get the experience necessary to be a clinical psychologist. I watched my mentors make exciting new discoveries, including that children with psychopathic tendencies are unable to process emotion properly. That experience convinced me to focus on research and go on for a PhD.
What drives your research?
Curiosity and a foolish desire to do science that might matter. Antisocial behaviour touches everybody in society at some level — but particularly victims or perpetrators. I'm hoping that long-term research tracking children's development through time will help with prevention or intervention strategies. Our research seems to strike a chord with people fascinated by what makes children behave in an extreme, antisocial way. Whether the data turn out as predicted or are different in interesting ways, both outcomes keep you on your toes and interested in asking the next question.
What was one of your best career decisions?
One of the most significant was joining an interdisciplinary PhD programme in social, genetic and developmental psychiatry at King's College London. There, I trained with world-class scientists who have been hugely influential on my career. They had the perfect blend of enthusiasm, curiosity and originality to make them excellent role models. None of my mentors had teaching responsibilities, so they had all the time in the world to mentor. Because of that, I came out of my PhD with several publications, many in top journals, and got two principal-investigator grants, which helped me to secure a faculty position after just one year of postdoc work.
Does this award validate research into childhood disorders?
Yes, recognizing our work in developmental psychopathology shows that society views investigation into childhood disorders seriously. Traditionally, the focus has been much more on adult mental health, but understanding childhood disorders offers potential for treatment and prevention, which hopefully will make an impact on public health.
How important were your mentors?
A good mentor is hugely important to career development. They can help you to think strategically about your career, give you advice on writing papers and grants, and promote opportunities for you. I find that people who have been successful themselves and are passionate more about science than their own glory make good mentors, because they are secure enough in their own standing that they can afford to be 100% supportive of their students.
What is the best piece of advice that a mentor has given you?
My King's College mentor, Robert Plomin, told me to pick collaborators carefully. “Bad collaborators are harder to get rid of than bad spouses,” he said.
How have you tackled being both a parent and researcher?
Juggling family life and work is a challenge, but not impossible. The UCL administrators are supportive of staff with young children. I have the flexibility to get work done in my own time. As long as the output is good, I can write by the light of the moon. Also helpful is that I co-run my lab with Eamon McCrory, a clinician and cognitive neuroscientist at UCL.
What are the benefits of running a lab with someone?
Eamon and I were both junior researchers in Blair's lab, and were appointed at UCL around the same time. We were friends with overlapping research interests, and thought that our work would blend well. We spur each other on and push each other's thinking. We've also found that we write grants and papers effectively together. On a practical level, it's nice to lead a lab together because there are two heads to deal with staff management and logistics. I highly recommend it.
Where do you see your career in 20 years?
I hope Eamon and I are still running a lab together and have progressed in understanding and classifying the different subtypes of children with antisocial behaviour. And we want to determine how parenting acts as a potential risk factor and interacts with biological risk factors.
Interview by Virginia Gewin
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Gewin, V. Essi Viding. Nature 465, 651 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7298-651a