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Working in biological psychology

By Antonio Paolini

A desire to pursue further study in both physiology and psychology led me to a career in biological psychology. After completing a double major in these subjects, I embarked on an Honours year in physiology where I learnt how to conduct behavioural experiments and correlate this behaviour with brain function and sensory processing of odour. I also did an Honours year in psychology, specialising in visual neuroscience and psychophysics.

Undertaking a PhD in physiology enabled me to continue my research into understanding the neural mechanisms of olfactory information transfer. Upon completing my PhD, I was fortunate to get a job as a Research Fellow in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne. Here I investigated the neural mechanisms underlying auditory brainstem coding and established a laboratory for intracellular recording in vivo.

I currently hold a joint research and academic position with the Bionic Ear Institute and La Trobe University. I combine my background in psychology and physiology to lecture in behavioural neuroscience. I also head the Auditory Clinical Neuroscience Unit at the Bionic Ear Institute. This unit consists of two programs: the Auditory Neuropsychology Program which investigates multi-sensory integration in language and cognitive development in children, and the Auditory Neurophysiology Program which focuses on new strategies for brain implants.

A typical day for me involves supervision of students and staff, as well as the management of many research projects. These projects may have a commercial focus or be more basic in nature. In my lab, we are keen to ensure that a large proportion of the research has a clinical aim; however, the importance of basic research into mechanisms of function is also crucial. For instance, my expertise in sensory modalities attracted attention from the commercial sector. This led to a research contract to examine neural correlates of social behaviour - such as the role of olfaction in fear, sexual behaviour and aggression - and culminated in the establishment of a La Trobe University unit for social neuroscience.

There are various tasks one needs to undertake for the successful completion of any research project or experiment. It is vital to put the necessary apparatus and procedures in place before an experiment can be conducted. We are always developing and implementing state-of-the art research techniques which allow us to test aspects of behaviour that previously were not possible to measure. For example, we are currently combining the latest neural recording techniques with behavioural observation. One of the biggest challenges in the field of biological psychology is keeping abreast with modern advances in experimental research.

One of the most interesting projects I have worked on is the development of the auditory brainstem and cochlear implant. My current research is helping to develop better implants and investigating the biological and cognitive factors underlying successful implantation. The process of developing intelligent implants will broaden our knowledge of how sensory information is coded in the brain and how certain behaviours manifest.

A major influential figure in my career has been Professor Graeme Clark, creator of the ‘multiple-electrode cochlear implant' which is hailed as one of the most significant breakthroughs in modern medical science. He mentored me when I first applied for external funding and has been a major supporter of my work. I am grateful for the exciting atmosphere he provided in which to pursue basic biological research in a clinical context. Biological psychology is the application of the principles of biology to the study of mental processes and behaviour so a good knowledge of basic physiology and neuroscience is an important aspect to consider when embarking on a career in this field of psychology.

There are many psychology courses that offer behavioural neuroscience as a subject. Follow this up with an Honours year and postgraduate study supervised by a behavioural scientist or a biological psychologist. To develop these skills further, you should also consider a PhD. Finally, don't feel daunted by the many years of study - I can vouch that a career in biological psychology is worth it!