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  • Katy Pallister

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Professor Karalyn Patterson

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

"Before I went to university, I had hoped for a career in music”

Professor Karalyn Patterson is a pioneer of cognitive neuropsychology, and has spent decades deciphering the intricacies of human memory and language from research on adults with brain diseases and injuries. Through a combination of computer modelling, brain imaging, and behavioural observations, Patterson has been able to directly link particular structures in the brain with specific disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“As humans live longer, neurodegenerative diseases become more prevalent,” Patterson said. “I am not a medical or pharmacological researcher, so the discoveries that I make will not lead to treatments for these diseases; but knowledge about the brain regions affected and how these brain networks underpin the central human functions of language and memory is a vital part of the story.”

Although innately tied to her field now, Patterson almost followed a completely different trajectory. “Before I went to university, I had hoped for a career in music. I played the piano and harpsichord, but discovered at a pre-university summer music school that I was not good enough; that was a useful if sobering experience! I started university without a plan but was soon intrigued by courses in experimental and cognitive psychology.”

Patterson continued to be spurred on in her scientific studies by senior figures in the field. “During my undergraduate degree, I remember a particularly inspiring professor with whom I studied and worked as a research assistant. His combination of intellectual curiosity for research, and enthusiasm for including his students in the process, was utterly inspiring.”

“I had never suffered a real academic failure before, and the shock was indescribable”

Entranced by the topic of human memory and language, Patterson went on to complete an MA in Experimental Psychology, followed by a PhD at the University of California, San Diego. But this path did not come without bumps. “During the first year of my postgraduate studies I worked fairly hard, achieved enough to satisfy my supervisor, and was awarded an MA. Embarking on a PhD in the following year - having been a fairly serious student all my life to that point - I began to discover that there were other interesting things out there in the world.

“At the end of that year, my supervisor declared my work unsatisfactory and dismissed me. I had never suffered a real academic failure before, and the shock was indescribable. I moved cities, worked for a year as a low-level computer programmer, decided that academic life must be better than this kind of job, and finished my PhD at a different university 3 years later.”

Since then, Patterson has fully embraced academic life, shaping the field of cognitive neuropsychology through her work on language and memory disorders that result from progressive brain diseases. “Who really knows why a particular researcher X is gripped by a particular field of research Y?” Patterson said. “All I can say is that for X = me, Y = cognitive neuropsychology.”

Patterson’s contributions to the field has been recognised with accolades. She is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences and British Academy. However, for Patterson, the highlight of her career was her time as a visiting researcher in Japan. Over a period of roughly 15 years, Patterson studied language disorders in Japanese patients with neurodegenerative diseases of the type on which her research focussed whilst she was in the UK.

“English and Japanese are about as different as two languages can be, but the human brain is the same the world over. Once I knew (a) how a certain type of brain disease affects language and semantic memory (the knowledge that is largely shared amongst people within a culture) in English speakers and (b) basic facts about the characteristics of the Japanese language, I was able to predict what patterns of impairment we should - and subsequently did - observe in the Japanese patients. This has been a privilege precious beyond the telling of it.”

“I had the full scenario of imposter syndrome”

Despite her huge success in the field, Patterson has struggled with imposter syndrome throughout her career. “I have always had the good fortune to work with outstanding colleagues; but the perhaps inevitable result of this was that I constantly compared myself to them, and always found myself wanting. I had the full scenario of imposter syndrome: ‘I am hopeless at this and, any day or minute now, ‘they’ are going to realise it’; ‘yes, okay, I recently had an idea that worked reasonably well and led to a decent publication, but I’ll never have another idea’; ‘no, I must not go for promotion as they’ll see how little I have accomplished’; and so on. I think imposter syndrome is terrible and ridiculous in equal proportions!

“Even at this very late stage of my career, I am not sure that I have entirely overcome it. Two main things have helped me: (1) a wonderfully supportive and reassuring husband (who is also a scientist and thus understands the unpredictability of research life); (2) ironically, the very thing that promotes the syndrome: working with outstanding colleagues. Yes, their brilliance makes me feel inferior; but it gradually (and rather late) began to dawn on me that some of the brightest and the best of them – despite innumerable opportunities to discover my inadequacies – seemed to want to continue research collaborations with me.”

“The most important thing for success is being continuously fascinated by what you do”

Having spent her career finding ways to live with imposter syndrome, Patterson is hopeful that fewer women in the future will have to experience it. “I think that things may be getting somewhat better, and for an obvious reason: there are now more role models of women in science. Senior women in my field, though still far outnumbered by men, are not as rare as they were when I was coming up through the ‘ranks’. The current Master of my Cambridge College is the first woman to hold that position; in 2011, a woman [again, the first] was appointed the Director of the Medical Research Council research unit where I worked for most of my career. This will not, on its own, solve imposter syndrome problem, but it will surely help.”

Throughout her struggles, Patterson maintained a firm interest in her area of study. The importance of this, in relation to success, she believes, is a winning formula. “One of the UK’s weekend newspapers always has an interview with some more-or-less famous person, and one of the usual questions is: “what do you think is most important to success, talent or ambition?’. Happily, I shall never be asked to do one of those interviews, but my answer to this particular question is ready: the most important thing for success is neither talent nor ambition, but rather being continuously fascinated by what you do.”

Professor Patterson was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Cathy Price. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates who they want to pass their award onto to create a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event later this year. More details to follow.

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