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Ellie’s fascinating PHD in educational neuroscience

29 September 2021  |  Jill Lundberg  |  Posted in:

After graduating from Oxford with a BA in Psychology and Linguistics, Ellie Braithwaite, alumna, completed an MSc in Educational Neuroscience at Birkbeck, University of London. Ellie is still at Birkbeck where she is studying for her PhD, working on understanding how toddlers’ brains develop. We were delighted to do a Q and A with Ellie to find out more about her studies since leaving Richmond Sixth Form College, her advice for students considering Oxbridge and also the highlights of the courses that she has taken.

What subjects did you study at A-level at Richmond Sixth Form College?

Maths, Biology, German, English Language – I did what I enjoyed.

What inspired you to choose the course you did at Worcester College, University of Oxford?

When we first started writing personal statements, I didn’t know what subject I wanted to study – I actually started writing different statements for different subjects. I don’t think there was any one thing that inspired me to choose my course, it was more that after researching the courses I realised that I was most interested in the content of the psychology/ linguistics course so I went for that.

What were the course highlights for you?

My BA is in Psychology and Linguistics and was a three-year course. It is part of the course called PPL (Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics). The nature of the course means I was part of two departments (Experimental Psychology and Modern Languages) which was frustrating at times but also gave me great access to two very different faculties and a huge variety of modules.

What did you do after graduating from Worcester College?

After graduating from Oxford I did some short-term research work for my dissertation supervisor. I then worked in a Nursery in Ripon, as I was considering going into Educational Psychology and for that you need a lot of experience working in education. I loved this work but also realised I wanted to go back to academia, so I then did an MSc in Educational Neuroscience which was joint between UCL and Birkbeck, University of London. During my Masters, I helped out with some research in the Birkbeck Babylab and discovered this whole new world of developmental neuroscience research. Following this, my dissertation supervisor again offered me a research assistant job, so I stayed on at Birkbeck, working in the Babylab on various research projects.

What are you doing now?

I am currently still at Birkbeck, University of London, now studying for my PhD. For this, I am working on understanding how toddlers’ brains develop and how we can better help children who might struggle later in life. I am also trying to include children from a broader range of backgrounds in my research. In normal times, I work in Birkbeck’s Babylab and Todderlab measuring children’s brain activity whilst they do various activities, which is a really cool and fun part of my work.

What are your plans for the future?

First, to finish my PhD and become Dr Braithwaite – following that, we’ll see! I am not yet sure whether I’d like to stay in academia or go elsewhere. If I stay in academia, this could be more of a teaching or a research role; if it’s elsewhere, maybe a role where I can use my scientific knowledge to influence child policy would be good. At the moment, I’m not closing off any options and will see what comes up nearer the time – I’m not due to finish my PhD until early 2023!

What advice would you give to students considering Oxbridge for their further studies?

I would say don’t be put off by preconceptions about Oxbridge and the people that go there. Students are there to study hard and get a good degree, but also to enjoy the experience and have a lot of fun. I only ever applied to Oxford out of curiosity to see how far I’d get – I never ever thought I’d actually get in. So if you are even a little bit curious just go for it and try because, despite my initial doubts, I had the best time at Oxford and would trade nothing for the experiences I had and the friends I met there.

Did you take part in any extra-curricular sport or clubs at Oxford?

Yes, loads! Oxford is a brilliant place to try new activities, or to do existing hobbies at a more competitive level. Because it is collegiate, you can play sport casually at college level or more seriously at University level. I took up rowing in my first year and also played hockey, football, cricket, rounders, darts and more at college level. In my final year, I played hockey for the University and got to play in the annual varsity match against Cambridge which was a huge honour (and of course we won!).

What are your happiest memories of Richmond School and Sixth Form College?

My best memories of school are the extra-curricular activities I was able to take part in. I always really loved days away at football matches or hockey rallies (especially when we were playing near Scarborough and managed to convince Ms Thompson to let us stop by the beach after the tournament!) and doing the Duke of Edinburgh award was always a laugh. Sixth form social and prom were also fun.

Probably the standout experience would be visiting Amala in India – that whole trip was amazing and I would absolutely encourage students to get involved in projects such as this.
Within school, a very specific but amusing highlight was when Mr Temple spent an entire lesson using google translate to talk and teach.

Do you have any favourite teachers or teachers who really supported you?

The first person to jump to mind is Mr Henderson – I spent a lot of lunch/ breaktimes just dropping by his office for a chat about life (and often fishing). I also remember seeing him just before I left school to head off for my Oxford interview and I still remind myself of the advice he gave me whenever I go for an interview.

The other obvious person for me is Ms Johnson who was constantly supportive and always kind – which are the main things a teacher should be. Mr Haye and Mr Sharp were also great and fun teachers who gave me more confidence in my abilities than I ever realised at the time; they also taught me the principles of science experiments which I still use today!

I’d also like to mention Adam Gedye, who I first knew as my piano teacher’s son and who became an ever-friendly face in school when we both started at Richmond together. I will always remember Mr Gedye as kind, first and foremost, and that is a tremendous legacy to leave.

And a final note…..

Not sure if this counts, but I’d like to tell students not to stress too much about their future plans. There can be a lot of pressure to have a clear plan for what you want to do at every step of life, but things don’t always end up the way you expect them to – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! There’s a lot to be said for adapting to what life deals you and taking opportunities as they arise – and you never know where they might lead, I’ve ended up working in a field I didn’t even know existed when I was at school!

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