Interview with Angela Medvedeva

The psychologist who signed up for a PhD aged 17 talks about proving her teachers wrong, keeping an open mind, and the biggest misconception about psychology

January 19, 2017
Angela Medvedeva

Angela Medvedeva is a cognitive psychologist based at Kingston University. She left high school at 15 and graduated from the University of Houston with two degrees – in psychology and in liberal studies – soon afterwards. At the age of 17, she enrolled for a PhD at Kingston, where she is researching neuroimaging methods and brain functioning.

Where and when were you born?

I was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1998. However, I lived in Europe, the Caribbean islands and, later on, in the US.

How has this shaped you?

Having travelled and been surrounded by people of different backgrounds and cultures, I spoke several languages and was adaptable, friendly and open-minded. Living on a remote Caribbean island, I knew many people who were healthy and happy despite not having much. Coming to the States, I was shocked by the difference in mindsets, even in young children. I was most affected by how people treated each other and was surprised that despite a better lifestyle, people seemed less happy. Since a young age, I asked questions: Why is human behaviour and thinking so complicated?

What were your thoughts when you were offered the opportunity to do a PhD at Kingston University?

First gratitude, then excitement, of course, and anticipation about what a life-changing experience it would be. Naturally, I had a bit of anxiety about whether I would fit in and if I would be taken seriously by my peers, but my decision was well thought out and made even before receiving the unconditional offer. I was working towards this moment since I became interested in using neuroimaging techniques to study human behaviour, and there was no room for doubt when my supervisors were ready to work with me on our ideas.

What’s the biggest misconception about your field of study?

The biggest misconception about psychology is that it is not rigorous enough to tackle the big, “important” questions because its methods as a field are limited. While psychology continues to be an important source of insights about human nature and potential, as a young and growing science it faces pressure from all sides to prove its worth.

Why did you decide to study several years ahead of your peers?

I started taking college classes after I passed the entrance exam at the age of 13, and as I took more classes I realised that my school could not meet my learning needs any more. To prove my principal wrong when she told me that I could not graduate within a year, I accepted the challenge and did the “impossible”: completing three years of school in one with the highest honours. By the time I enrolled in university, I was prepared to be a full-time student, thanks to my strong values, commitment from my family and inspiration from my professors.

Should educational systems allow students more flexibility to study at their own pace?

Most definitely. However, this flexibility should not go to such extremes that students are falling behind their own potential, advancing too fast, or specialising in the area of interest at the expense of discovering other subjects. The key to education is [having a] balance of academia, social interaction and life experience. The goal should not be to graduate early but to make the most of the opportunities provided.

Your PhD will consider how people adjust to the customs and values of a new country. Could your research help to inform current debates on immigration?

Above all, I hope that my research will encourage open-mindedness about different backgrounds and ideas as well as the appreciation of these differences. I also hope to encourage attitudes of peace and tolerance across the globe so that migration is no longer the only choice for people as a means of survival.

What is the worst thing anyone has said about your academic work?

I welcome constructive criticism, but for me there is nothing worse than hearing that part of my work is unclear or incomprehensible. One of the fundamental goals of science is to disseminate the findings so that they can be implemented and further explored, but lack of clarity renders my ideas unusable.

What has changed your way of thinking?

I do not like to get stuck in the same mindset. As the world and circumstances change, I like to update my views. I like to try things and see them for myself, forming my own opinion about what is best for me. It is better to find your own place and your own dream to follow than to try to conform to someone else’s, and only when you can appreciate other people can you appreciate your own worth and achievements. 

What do you plan to do after you finish your PhD?

I plan to attend medical school in the hope of combining clinical neurology and cognitive psychology in my future research.

What would you like to be remembered for?

I hope that I am seen as a reflection of the love, effort and work of the many people who are part of my journey. Today it is more important for me to keep discovering who I am and who I want to be…perhaps leaving the people I meet along the way smiling.


Sir Paul Nurse has taken up office as chancellor of the University of Bristol. He is best known for his role in the discovery of the molecules regulating the cell cycle, which won him the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He has served as chief executive of Cancer Research UK, president of the Royal Society and director general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, and is now director and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, which opened last year. Sir Paul called Bristol “one of the UK’s great universities, both in terms of its world-leading research and also its teaching. With the recent announcements about its new campus and ambitious plans outlined in its new strategy, it’s an exciting time to be involved.”

Monica Whitty has been appointed professor of human factors in cybersecurity at the University of Warwick’s Warwick Manufacturing Group. She has spent 15 years researching behaviour in cyberspace, including studying how users create new identities, and detecting and preventing cybercrime. Professor Whitty moves on from her position in the cybersecurity research team at the University of Leicester. In her new role she will focus on the human factors of online behaviour to help develop ways to identify cybercriminals. She will begin with a project on how understanding West African culture could thwart online criminal activity originating in the region.

Computer scientist Thomas J. LeBlanc will become the 17th president of George Washington University, leaving his position as provost of the University of Miami.

Shaun R. Harper joins the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education as a professor, founding the Race and Equity Centre. He previously founded the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Earl of St Andrews, George Windsor, has been announced as chancellor of the University of Bolton. He will be ceremonially installed in the post in March.

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