When Dr Sarah Bate applied for fusion funding to help get her Centre for Face Processing Disorders off the ground, she was the sole academic researching this issue at the university, and indeed one of very few in the country.

The initial funding she received from the Fusion Investment Fund (FIF), combined with some further money from Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF), allowed her to start building a team of researchers, beginning with just two post-doctoral students. Through her work, other experts in face processing were drawn to BU, including Professor Changhong Liu, Dr Rachel Bennetts and Dr Peter Hills, along with students keen to learn from world-leading experts in the field.

Much of Sarah’s early research focused on prosopagnosia, also known as face-blindness, but the input of other academics, as well as numerous students, has allowed the centre to broaden its focus, most recently with a number of research papers into so-called ‘super recognisers’. This particular research has significant implications for the security forces and has resulted in BU collaborating with the Metropolitan Police and Dorset Police to find out more about people who are considered to be ‘super recognisers’, as well as looking at how to utilise their skills to improve safety and security.

All of this work feeds into and informs professional practice, with Sarah expecting the university’s collaboration with the police force to continue, at both a local and national level.

In addition to this work with super recognisers, Sarah’s research into prosopagnosia has gained significant traction, with her work helping to raise awareness of the condition in the UK and within the NHS, eventually leading to the condition being listed on the NHS Choices website.

Research isn’t the only focus for the centre though, with education a very important part of the work Sarah and her team do. As well as teaching a final-year model to undergraduate psychology students about face processing, Sarah has also developed a Master’s programme specifically about face processing. Students not only get taught by Sarah and her colleagues, but are also able to participate in research projects within the centre for their dissertations, giving them valuable experience and even publications to their name before they graduate.

The academic

Dr Sarah Bate

“Before we set up the centre, my work on prosopagnosia had been gaining quite a bit of attention in the media, but it was predominantly focused on me. Getting that initial boost of funding enabled us to formalise what we were doing, and as a result we now dominate this area of research and expertise within the UK,” Sarah explains.

“Our research ties in really nicely with the teaching we do at undergraduate and postgraduate level. We encourage our students to take on projects with links to our overriding research aims, rather than the kind of small-scale project you’d typically do at undergraduate level especially.

It allows them to do more sophisticated projects, they’re getting better training, experiencing what it’s like to work as part of a larger team, and they have natural mentors."

“They see the progression route from second year undergraduate, to Master’s and PhD level study, all the way through to becoming a lecturer. It gives them a way of visualising a potential academic career,” she enthuses.

In terms of all of this work feeding into professional practice, our collaborations with Dorset Police and the Metropolitan Police are a really nice demonstration of fusion - particularly the Met Police, as their super recogniser unit is a research partner."

“We have officers from that unit coming to work with us regularly and they’re putting what we find back into their professional practice. Some of the officers even gave a lecture to our undergraduate students about their field. They’ve also offered some of our students placements over the summer, so it’s a really strong partnership for us in every way, and one that we expect to last.”

The student

Ebony Murray, current PhD student with the Centre for Face Processing

Ebony first came to BU in 2010 to study her undergraduate degree in Psychology, and it was here that she first learned about prosopagnosia.

“In my second year of studying, I had my first lecture about prosopagnosia. What struck me the most was how unheard of it was, and yet how prevalent it appears to be within the population.

“In the April of my second year of studying, I attended the annual British Psychological Society conference and found myself very interested in research and a potential career in academia. When I returned, I put this interest in research and the curiosity I had about prosopagnosia together, and became a research assistant for Dr Sarah Bate,” she explains.

“I became very involved with recruiting participants, data collection, and developing new research tests. With this experience, I was able to undertake an advanced final-year dissertation project under the supervision of Sarah, using eye-tracking methodology with individuals living with prosopagnosia. I received a first class classification for this project, and gained invaluable skills and experience whilst doing so.”

However, Ebony was keen to pursue her interest in prosopagnosia further and in 2013 continued her studies at BU, and completed a full-time MSc in Lifespan Neuropsychology.

“Again, I completed my dissertation on the topic of prosopagnosia which has recently been published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,” she reveals.

“By this time, I had decided that a career in academia and research was for me, and I understood that to achieve this goal I would need to pursue PhD study.

“There are many reasons why I chose to further my studies on this topic. Firstly, it is something that had drawn my attention from the beginning and something which I now had rather expansive experience and knowledge about. Further, it continued to surprise me how prevalent this disorder appears to be, and yet the public awareness of it was – and still is – rather minimal. I was keen to be a part of the research and that which would increase the awareness of prosopagnosia,” Ebony adds.

The topic area is still considered to be in its infancy, and the subsequent research is groundbreaking and extremely rewarding to be a part of. To be given the opportunity to remain a member of the centre and remain at BU which combined, has offered so much to me and my studies previously, is priceless.”

The impact

DCI Mick Neville, Metropolitan Police

The Super Recogniser programme shows the value of operational police officers working closely with academic experts. Super Recognisers have revolutionised the police use of CCTV and have significantly reduced crime at events, such as concerts. I am grateful to the universities, who have assisted in the identification of super recognisers and the development of these tactics.”