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Kim Graham

Professor Kim Graham has pursued psychology since picking it up as a second-year outside course. Today she is a leading cognitive neuroscientist and champion of research activities. Here, she reflects on breaking barriers, making a stand and enduring friendships.

Name Professor Kim Graham

BSc Psychology

Year of Graduation 1990

Your time at the University

Kim Graham and her book
Professor Kim Graham holding her forthcoming book, 'The Evolutionary Road to Human Memory'

My first interaction with Edinburgh University was prior to starting my undergraduate course. I lived in Edinburgh and had read a cool description of an experiment testing the response of fruit flies (drosophila) to gravity. This study had been done by a zoologist at Edinburgh University, the late Professor Aubrey Manning. I wanted to do a biology project similar to this experiment but needed a special piece of equipment in which the fruit flies could fly through tubes, with the choice of flying up or down at T-junctions. Aubrey Manning kindly lent me his fruit fly T-maze, and I spent many a week (and weekend) breeding fruit flies in the school biology lab! Given Aubrey’s kind nurturing of my fledgling interest in scientific experimentation, it was always inevitable that I’d end up at Edinburgh doing Biological Sciences!

Despite my early interest in fruit flies, I ended up leaving Edinburgh with a degree in Psychology. This outcome was rather fortuitous: I had selected Psychology in my second year because I was short of a half course, and it meant I didn’t have to spend lots of time up at King’s Buildings. It turned out that I found Psychology was absolutely fascinating, and I was also rather good at it. The latter came as a bit of a surprise to everyone!  I’d done badly the first time I sat my Highers, having to redo some of them to get the grades I needed to get into Edinburgh. So, having found something I liked and could do, it seemed sensible to pursue that as my main degree, and I’ve been doing Psychology ever since.

I had some great lecturers during this time, and their input – like that of Aubrey Manning – influenced my future career direction. Klaus Wiedemann taught us about the emerging field of brain imaging (where MRI scanners are used to measure activity in the brain while people perform different tasks). This technique is now the mainstay of work in my lab at Cardiff University, where we study memory networks, including how genes involved in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease affect these circuits. John Wann taught us about neuropsychology (the study of how brain damage affects behaviour); my interest in this led me to Cambridge University to do a PhD on memory loss in dementia.

I remember – in my final year – frustration with the School of Psychology, which closed the library early when we were doing our final exams. A small group of us decided to stay in the library after closing time, as a silent protest over this issue. We hunkered down in the library, with a few snacks to keep us going, pretending to do some revision! When we eventually decided to leave the building, we discovered that the School gates had been closed in front of the entrance to the School. If you ever walk past those, take a look: they are absolutely massive! We had to scale them to get out, trying to avoid getting caught on the spikes at the top. We eventually all got out (unharmed), and with relief walked along towards the Meadows chuckling at our good fortune. Just as we thought we’d got away with it, one of the security guards shone a torch on us and demanded to know where we had come from. After giving us a bit of a scare, they let us go. I always have a wry chuckle now as I walk pass those Mount Everest gates. 

Your experiences since leaving the University

Kim Graham and four friends from university
"Edinburgh also gave me lifelong friends with whom I have had (and continue) to have amazing experiences."

After completing my undergraduate degree, I was very fortunate to get a research assistant position with Ian Deary, a hugely talented and well-known Edinburgh University researcher. Ian taught me an enormous amount in that time, encouraging me to find a PhD place so I could further my research training. Prior to doing that, I spent six months in Asia where I taught English in Hong Kong, before travelling in China, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. I did this tour with friends I had made while at Edinburgh, and it was a fantastic experience to spend this time with them, exploring other cultures and countries. A few of us still get together most years, travelling to different cities to catch-up over leisurely dinners. As well as influencing my career direction, Edinburgh also gave me lifelong friends with whom I have had (and continue) to have amazing experiences.   

I returned from Asia to undertake my PhD at Cambridge University, where I remained until 2007 when I moved to Cardiff University with my family. We needed a larger house, as well as a new challenge! I am now Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Enterprise at Cardiff, where I am responsible for all aspects of the University’s research activities. This is a very varied and busy job, but I love being in a senior leadership position where I am able to influence the research culture of the University and create new opportunities for staff to undertake exciting and innovative research.  

I also continue to do my own research. My group at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre uses brain imaging techniques to understand how individual differences in our brain structure and function relate to variation in our behaviour. This work is informed by a theoretical framework for human memory that I’ve developed with researchers in the US, outlined in our recent book ‘The Evolution of Memory Systems’. This book discusses how human memory has evolved over time, built on the memory systems that evolved in our animal ancestors. 

I remember, as a student in Edinburgh, reading an outstanding book (in the aforementioned Psychology library) by one of the leading researchers in neuropsychology, Tim Shallice. This book, ‘From Neuropsychology to Mental Structure’, was a tour de force, which rather blew my mind in its complexity as a student. At that time, it seemed impossible to me that anyone would ever know enough, or feel confident that one knew enough (!), to write an academic book. It feels pretty amazing, therefore, that I am now an author of my own, and that our work is helping drive new ways of thinking about how the brain supports human memory. We’ve just finished a popular version of our academic book, which is due to be published later this year, called ‘The Evolutionary Road to Human Memory’. Given the tremendous influence that Edinburgh University had on my career, informed by the intriguing books in the Psychology library, it seems only right that I send up a copy in gratitude for the support and encouragement I was given while at the university.

At that time, it seemed impossible to me that anyone would ever know enough, or feel confident that one knew enough (!), to write an academic book. It feels pretty amazing, therefore, that I am now an author of my own, and that our work is helping drive new ways of thinking about how the brain supports human memory.

Professor Kim Graham

Alumni wisdom

Enjoy every minute of being at Edinburgh: a wonderful city, university and the chance to develop skills and friendships that will last you for life. And don’t get locked in any libraries. 

Related links

Kim Graham's staff profile - Cardiff University (external link)

The Evolutionary Road to Human Memory - Oxford University Press (external link)

School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language

School of Biological Sciences