Akira O’Connor is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at University of St Andrews.


Q: What is your area of research and how do you use imaging?

A: I’m interested in how we make decisions about what we do and don’t remember. We tend to assume that what we say we remember reflects in black and white the ‘contents’ of our memories. But more often than not, there are many sources of information that feed into these decisions, creating more of a grey area than even we are aware of. One situation where the grey area looms large is the sensation of deja vu – the feeling that a situation is familiar, combined with the awareness that this familiarity is incorrect. A curious thing about deja vu is that, unlike many memory errors, it happens more in younger people and declines as we reach middle age. It’s an experience that teases apart memory systems from decision-making systems, and shows us that even as memory systems err, decision-making systems can keep us on track.

I use fMRI to identify the neural substrates that support memory and decision-making systems. Imaging data complements the behavioural data I get from cognitive experiments, meaning that all of my work is founded on strong experimental design.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your life outside of research?

A: I grew up in London to Japanese and Irish parents… I suppose my name is a bit of a giveaway. I have spent significant periods of my life in Leeds, St Louis, and for the past 10 years, St Andrews. I live near Cupar and enjoy running the trails and roads of Fife.

Q: Why do you consider it important to raise visibility of diverse imaging researchers?

A: I consider it important to raise the visibility of all historically marginalised groups as part of a broader effort to reduce entrenched societal disadvantage. Beyond the often-overlooked boost that simply seeing someone who looks like you makes you feel less isolated, the standard response to this question is that raising visibility of diversity can help establish to those from marginalised communities that a profession is a viable one for them. That’s all well and good, but it runs the risk of out-sourcing solving the problem to those experiencing it (“you’ve seen the pictures, now get the education and do the job!”). Visibility raising needs to be combined with active efforts to deal with systemic disadvantage (economic, educational) and a lack of social mobility, and that’s a much broader issue that research and higher education institutions, along with government, need to be taking more responsibility for.

Focusing specifically on the efforts of organisations to promote themselves as diverse, the easiest way to raise visibility is to raise diversity such that any representation becomes diverse representation. I worry when I see organisations celebrating a representation of diversity that doesn’t actually exist outside the cherry-picked situations in their brochures and videos.

Q: What is one thing SINAPSE members can do to contribute to equity/inclusion in our research community?

A: Lobby your university or organisation to embody the diversity it would seek to present to others. If your promotional materials are full of people of colour in ways that are unrepresentative of the working environment you know, ask the organisation what it is doing to make that representation a reality.


This profile is part of a SINAPSE monthly feature to raise visibility of imaging researchers belonging to marginalised groups. More volunteers needed!