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Mary Gilhooly, Brunel Institute for Ageing Studies, Brunel University
Professor Mary Gilhooly

How did your interests in ageing begin, and why?

My original plan was to be an ‘architectural psychologist’, having done my PhD in the field of what was called loosely environmental psychology at Aberdeen University.  Of course, there was not one job in the UK of that nature, so I ended up at the MRC Medical Sociology Unit in Aberdeen.  I was hired to do a study on family care of people with dementia.  This was one of the first on this topic to be conducted in the UK and it was this study that launched me into a career in social gerontology.

What are your key areas of interest, and why?

My gerontology interests are very catholic.  Indeed, I describe myself as a ‘guerrilla researcher’ because for years I have run around taking pot shots at lots of topics, ranging from mid-life risk factors for cognitive decline in old age to barriers to the use of public transport by older people.  Trench research is the norm – dig yourself into one topic and only occasionally put your head above the parapet and shoot at other topics.  It has been enormous fun being a guerrilla researcher, but the downside is that after many years in the field I am not well known for any particular contribution to the literature.

Please can you briefly outline your career?

Tricky – it has been so long!  My first degree was in Liberal Arts, with a psychology major and philosophy minor at the University of Oregon.  As part of that degree I studied psychology during my ‘junior year abroad’ at the University of Leeds.  I would have stayed there, but the overseas fees were tripled that year so I had to go home.   My first academic post was as a research assistant with my personal tutor, Derek Boyle from Leeds.   He moved to the Psychology Department at Aberdeen University with a grant to study children and road accidents.  When my contract came to an end I thought it would be nice to be an educational psychologist so did a MEd.  However, during the course I developed an interest in studies on personal space and the impact of the built environment on human behaviour; this led to a PhD on crowding.  No job in that field so off to the MRC Medical Sociology Unit to a post as a social psychologist.  A chance encounter with Jim Birren in Leipzig led to a wonderful postdoctoral fellowship at the Andrus Gerontology Centre, University of Southern California.  Then it was back to Scotland and a job as a lecturer in the Behavioural Sciences Group in the Medical School, Glasgow University.  My interest in law and ethics in medicine, an interest which I was allowed to work on seriously while in California, further developed during my time at Glasgow University, leading to another higher degree, an MPhil in law and ethics in medicine awarded by the Law School.  An appointment as the Co-Director of the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine then followed.  After nine years as a lecturer at Glasgow University I was enticed across the Clyde River to the University of Paisley to a Chair in Health Studies, with an agreement that I would be allowed to establish the Centre of Gerontology and Health Studies.  Setting up Scotland’s first MSc in social gerontology was part of our early work.   During my sojourn at Paisley University one of the most important events of my life took place – I was elected as President of the British Society of Gerontology. The four years as BSG’s President were truly wonderful and I am still grateful to my campaign managers, Dr Gillian Dalley and Prof Judith Phillips for not only persuading me to run for President, but for their brilliant campaigning on my behalf.  I will be indebted to them until I die.   

I had nine very happy years at the University of Paisley, but regime change did not suit me.  Over coffee with a friend I mumbled disappointment at the changes at Paisley.  To my surprise this led to a request that I apply for the post of Head of the School of Social Work and Primary Care at the University of Plymouth.  My time at Plymouth University was very stimulating, but, because I am greedy, the offer of a substantial pay rise to move back to Scotland led to acceptance of post at Glasgow Caledonian University.  Another case of restlessness brought me to the School of Health Sciences and Social Care, Brunel University in 2006.  Soon after coming to Brunel I founded the Brunel Institute for Ageing Studies.  We have been so successful in getting grants that the university awarded us Collaborative Research Network status which means that we are provided with core funding.  I am so happy at Brunel University (and especially so now that Christina Victor has joined us) that it would take a very large sum of money indeed to persuade me to move again.

What's been the biggest change in ageing research since you started?

The emphasis on large, interdisciplinary projects, funded collaboratively by all the funding councils, has probably been the biggest change in recent years.  Forcing researchers from different disciplines to collaborate has substantially changed the nature of gerontology research.  While on the whole I think this has been a very good thing, and I have certainly benefitted personally, I do sometimes wonder if theory development will be negatively effected by a change which gives priority to applied research.

How did you become interested in the BSG?

Rex Taylor, my team leader at the MRC Medical Sociology Unit, encouraged me to attend my first BSG conference in 1979.  I found the enthusiasm of those early BSG conferences quite infectious.  It is extraordinary that BSG has been able to maintain that same enthusiasm all these years.  In 1979 I would have thought it most unlikely that I would be the director of a gerontology research centre hosting the 2010 BSG conference.

What do you like best about your work?

Writing grants – I love the chase.  Although I am less than enamoured about managing large research projects and, as a consequence, often feel dismayed when I get a letter telling me that I have been awarded a funding, grants are wonderful because of all the fascinating people that one meets during the period the grant is running.  Soon I will not be allowed to apply for grants because mandatory retirement is looming; I shall really miss this part of my life.

What do you like least about your work?

Until recently there was almost nothing that I disliked about my current post.  Now, however, I am in charge of the staff development budget.  Having to decide who does and does not get travel expenses for conferences, plus how much they will  be allocated, is a truly unpleasant task. I must find a way to get rid of this responsibility. Soon everyone in my school will hate me.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

The best piece of advice I have given is the best advice I was given as I was nearing the end of writing up my PhD -  “it will never be good, so just finish it”.   

What is your favourite film, and why?

Saving Private Ryan, a film that begins with the landing of American troops on Omaha Beach. Although I was so upset by the opening scenes and could barely see the screen for tears, this film made me realize what it must really have been like for my father when he was fighting in the front lines in the Philippines during WWII.  Because the war was so terrible for him he never talked about it when I was a child.  He died before I was old enough to think to ask about his experiences in the war.

What three things would you take to a desert island with you, and why?

  1. A tin-opener – it would be soooooooo frustrating to have tins of food from ship wrecks appear on the beach and be unable to open them.
  2. Spider repellent – I am terrified of small black or brown spiders.  Strangely though, I have no fear of tarantulas.   
  3. A horse.  I love the smell of horses and stroking their velvet noses.  Horses bring back fond memories of a carefree childhood in the wild west. 
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