POC:STEM / Maia Forde

After completing a degree in Biomedicine at St. Georges University, Maia is now completing a masters in psychology at Nottingham. Known for her gifted piano playing, quick wit and extreme fear of cows, Our conversation with Maia ranged from entertaining insight into her hatred of maths, to discussion of factors people of colour are forced to consider when applying for roles in science.

N: Tell me about yourself

M: Growing up I never thought I would be a scientist. I hate maths… absolutely hate it, but I always wanted to be a doctor which I didn’t think would involve much maths. So I did a degree in biomedical science and in my final year took a lot of psychology modules and really enjoyed them. Then I took a year out to work as a teaching assistant with children with autism and now I’m doing a masters in psychology, which I know  doesn’t say much about who I am…but it’s what I’m interested in. I used to do a lot of music, but I don’t have the time to do much anymore which is kind of sad.

N: Do you think the intensity of doing a Biomed degree meant that your music was pushed to one side?

M: A little bit, while I was in London I was actually studying for my performance diploma in first year until it got too much. Now that I’m in Nottingham (studying her Masters) I don’t have access to a piano, and the practice rooms are closed because of Covid so it’s quite hard to play and to find a balance between work and music.

N: Did you perform much… or were you more of a bedroom musician?

M: Both! I used to perform in piano competitions up until last year. It taught me a lot, it was always just me and a bunch of really young piano machines who have been playing since they were three, but it was actually a lot of fun. I’ve been thinking recently about creativity and science. How do you bring your creative side over to science, which can be very controlled and restrictive? Is there room for self-expression in science?

N: I think there’s a common misconception that science and creativity are two separate entities, and that scientists are generally not creative people. Being a scientist means that you constantly have to be creative… coming up with new ideas, new theories, new experiments.  

M: I think a lot of it is perspective. When you do something creative, your perspective completely changes, which can have a knock-on effect on other aspects of your life. A lot of what I’ve done throughout my life comes from three things: academia, sport and music. I often think of the ways that music has influenced how I understand sport. Music and dance have definitely affected the way I row as it’s a very rhythmic activity, while ballet has affected my movement in sport and even my approach to science.

N: I completely agree. Part of the problem seems to be a lack of understanding. Someone who isn’t a mathematician may find maths completely rigid and unmalleable, while I’ve heard of physicists describe an equation as “beautiful” or “elegant” (Maia begins to retch uncontrollably) which are adjectives you’d usually associate with art or music. ANYWAY, so what made you go on to choose psychology?

M: I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, but when I did those psychology modules in my final year I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed learning as much as I did then. It didn’t feel like a chore, I was looking forward to revision… it was almost like a flow state, everything was just piecing together perfectly. I thought “I can understand this, I like this, this is probably what I’m meant to do” and not gonna lie, people (mostly men) seem to come to me for free therapy anyway, maybe I should get paid for it! I’m not completely sure what area I want to go into, but I’m angling towards clinical psychology, neuropsychology or forensic psychology.

N: What does being a forensic psychologist actually entail?

M: So forensic psychology would be working within the criminal justice system, working with prisoners or people in the community with records. You could be an expert witness in a court case, that sort of thing. To be honest its very complex and I’m not sure I completely understand it all! Essentially the common theme is crime. 

Neuropsychology focuses on people with traumatic brain injuries, Parkinsons and sometimes learning disabilities and autism. You have to know everything, neuropsychology is a post-doc qualification, as with forensic. You first have to train as a clinical psychologist, it’s a long road.

N: Do you know where you may want to apply to?

M: I’ve been thinking of another city apart from London. I really love Manchester, I considered Cambridge but then thought “do I really want to be at a place where someone’s trying to arrest me just for walking into the psychology building?!”. That sounds crazy but it literally happens to professors, I just think that’s another level which I’m not sure I’m ready for.

N: So when considering what to do in your career (where to go, what to do), do you think your race can be a deciding factor?

M: Yes definitely. I know that sometimes you just have to think “fuck this” and go anyway, but some of the experiences that I, and other people have had in academia have made me think it’s just not worth choosing certain places just because of their credentials. Three years is a long time, and an education is a holistic experience, if one aspect of that isn’t brilliant…. do I want to be there? If no one can really relate to your life experience, how are you really going to connect with anyone there?

It’s heart-breaking because it means there are all these missed opportunities and it’s not something other people would ever have to think about. The other side of the coin is then being offered opportunities because you are black. All these job descriptions that say “we especially encourage you to apply if you are black” and my parents saying “with the recent protests and the death of George Floyd, you’ll probably be straight in there!”. I don’t want to be a statistic, I want to be hired because you like me and my unique perspective, not just to fulfill your diversity quota. Plus, just hiring black people doesn’t mean your getting rid of racism in your workplace, its still there.

N: Could you not argue that having positive discrimination and affirmative action is a necessary steppingstone to level-out the playing field?

M: That’s also true, I think the work doesn’t stop with just hiring people. You have to continue to actively combat the stereotypes that are within everyone and the workplace.It’s something that I think about a lot, especially when considering my thesis this year. I really need quantitative experimental experience as my undergrad project was literature-based, so I need more experience with…(retches again)…numbers. I want to do something really scientific and experimental. But I then I feel I have a duty to do something meaningful in social psychology where I’m looking at race. So much of the literature within psychological science is about risk, negative things to do with black people involving racism and stereotypes.

I just want to be able to be a black person, doing research about black people that isn’t negative. Of course all of it is incredibly important but having to constantly learn about only these things takes its toll. We have had lectures this year on prejudice and discrimination, I’m listening to a lecturer discuss a case study where white people were more likely to be saved from a fire, then its swiftly on to another horrific example of racism. This is my life, it’s me who is less likely to be saved from a burning building.

In psychology it seems that a lot of the clinical work is mainly done by white women, while the research is generally white men. I don’t know how I feel about that, do I think I can fit in these practices or institutions? One of my black friends who also did psychology at university opted out of continuing, even though she was the perfect candidate. When I asked her why she didn’t carry on, she said it was because the field was “too white” …. and now she’s doing something in HR. It hurts that she felt like she couldn’t go on, even though she’s incredibly gifted.

Diversity in psychology is a long-acknowledged issue, with cultural differences between doctor and patient preventing a true understanding of a person’s individual issues and needs. Research by the Health and Social Care Information centre  showed that people from minority groups make up 9.6 % of qualified clinical psychologists. When considering that BAME individuals make up 13 % of the national population(ONS 2018), the urgent need for increased representation is ever more apparent