About Uta Frith‎ > ‎More‎ > ‎

A bit more

This is a Q&A piece for the WISE website 2009, slightly updated

If you want to know what I did and what I am currently doing, you can look at other parts of my website. Currently, I am trying to explore the processes underlying social interactions in the mind/brain. I am doing this jointly with my husband, Chris Frith, and with lots of younger collaborators. Some examples of our research questions are: What does it really mean to take another person’s perspective? How do we come to value social objects? What are the conditions that influence us towards doing as others do - but not always?

Did you always want to be in the profession you are in?

Who does? In science and technology new disciplines are created all the time and new opportunities for jobs arise that might have been difficult to predict. Before starting at University in Germany I had no idea what Psychology was and had never heard of Cognitive Development or Neuropsychology. Yet these topics have become something like an obsession to me. I drifted into Psychology after about a year spent sampling subjects as diverse as Slavonic studies and Philosophy. Philosophy was the biggest disappointment. It just seemed to be talk. I studied History of Art for a while quite seriously, mainly because there were exciting excursions to France and because the lectures were very enjoyable. Here is what impressed me about Psychology: it was a structured course and there were hands-on experiments and tests. I liked getting involved in this, and what inspired me most were the seminars/lectures we had jointly with medical students. Presentations of real patients by a charismatic professor in the Psychiatry department, were a revelation. Suddenly I knew that this was what I wanted to find out about. But, there was a snag. English textbooks were used in this course. So I had to learn English. So I came to study in London. So I met my husband. So I stayed in the UK.

What subjects did you study at school?

 I went to a boys’ school, a Gymnasium, where Latin and Greek were obligatory and taken until A-levels. I liked languages and history best. Biology was fascinating, I was not good at maths, chemistry and physics. Nevertheless I read some popular science books and remember being excited about the possibility that all the sciences fitted together in a huge pattern. Everyone thought I would study an arts subject such as ancient languages, and my dream was to discover an as yet unknown language, like Etruscan, and decipher it. 

Do you have any specific role models/ mentors that influenced you into what you are doing now?

Probably too many to mention, but here is an anecdote about my earliest role model, my mother. On day we went to a big hospital, when I was maybe 9 years old, and in the entrance there was an imposing and beautiful looking Latin inscription. I think I decided there and then to learn Latin! My mother, who had left school at 14, in line with the shockingly low expectation of women’s education at the time, encouraged me to try and guess at least some of the words. To my delight, I found that I could do this with a little bit of help from her.

Most people would mention their supervisors and mentors as role models and I too can say that they greatly inspired me, and not only in terms of the methods and concepts they taught me. They influenced me in what I gradually adopted as my personal style and taste, even though I tried to set myself apart as well. Other role models have been mothers of children with autism who coped incredibly well with this enormous challenge, and who shared with me their first-hand insights and observations. I also feel that a huge influence came directly from colleagues that I interacted with. Some of my PhD students have shaped my outlook on life as much as some of my elders.

What difficulties have you encountered along the way that you had to overcome?

 Having changed countries, one difficulty was to catch up on all sorts of cultural and language knowledge, including even nursery rhymes and certainly poetry, something I continue to enjoy. A certain amount of difficulty was due to not having had a good grounding in maths, chemistry and physics. This was partly because at school I wasn’t sufficiently interested in these subjects, and partly because I wasn’t very good at them. This unfortunately is a rather weak foundation for a science career – and in my view, it would be a great boon if people in a similar situation could be offered a second chance later on. I did my best to learn on the job, and my husband was and still is my best tutor.

Do you find it difficult being mainly in a ‘male dominated’ job environment?

 Having been one of only very few girls at my school, and where almost all teachers were men, a ‘male-dominated’ environment seemed just normal. I believe it spurred me on because I learned I could earn respect by doing well. I also learned to cope with being judged ‘unfeminine’ and ‘too intellectual’ and now laugh at the spurious conflict this appeared to be. Looking back on my life, I can say that I liked being and working with women just as much as with men. Likewise, when thinking about people I cannot get on with (it does happen!), I find they are as often male as female.

Who do you admire? (and why)

 I admire people who are creative in arts or sciences, especially those who can communicate their gifts to inspire others. But most of all, I admire those who are seeking after truth and beauty and are at the same time striving for goodness. Because our lives are so heavily influenced by chance events, I particularly admire resilience in the face of adversity.

How do you see your work affecting other people’s lives?

 Cognitive neuroscientists are trying to understand the mind and how it is linked to the brain. This is a huge enterprise, as big as reaching the stars. But we are very much at the beginning. This is a joint enterprise where one person’s work is not as important as the fact that many people are working on similar questions. Progress is still very slow, but I am happy to feel a part of this enterprise and hope that in time the accumulated knowledge will accelerate. One of my great expectations is that we will massively improve education by knowing how the brain learns.

Did you ever imagine you’d be doing this job early on in your school years?

No way. I truly had no idea that this is what I would be doing. I was curious and open to different opportunities and I was not fixed on any particular path. I was lucky enough to find what I really liked and lucky to have been allowed to pursue it. And of course, I was extremely lucky to be paid for doing it! However, I believe that it is necessary to be a bit more than curious, and a bit more than lucky. You have to have the capacity for a passionate interest in ‘something’. Then you should also be alert to opportunities and be courageous enough to take them up.