Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

Doctorate graduate explores what gender can engender

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Marea Colombo, the eldest daughter of Otago Vice-Chancellor and Psychology Professor Harlene Hayne and Head of the Department of Psychology Professor Mike Colombo, will graduate on Saturday with her PhD in … Psychology. She spoke to the Otago Bulletin Board about her studies and her future plans.

Marea-Colombo-image
Otago PhD graduand and daughter of the University's Vice-Chancellor, Marea Colombo.

Marea Colombo runs a local improvisation comedy troupe that performs every second Friday at Dunedin’s Playhouse theatre.

“It’s my favourite thing ever,” Marea says. “I would love to get hold of improvisers and do some empirical research on them, as there is so much thinking that goes on such as considering what other people are thinking and analysing for the next step in the story.”

It’s highly possible the act of thinking itself is Marea’s next favourite thing, as understanding how others think, see and feel underpins her Doctorate thesis in Psychology that she graduates with on Saturday.

“As adults we have the ability to take the perspectives of others into consideration, a skill Psychologists call ‘theory of mind,’ so why does it seem this ability is not always used,” she asks.

Maybe we just don’t want to, is one reason Marea came up with. To use our advanced ‘theory of mind’, she says we have to care enough to use it. For one reason or another, we need to be motivated to take another person’s perspective.

"Due to its holistic nature, psychology would allow me to do anything, and even if I did want to eventually get into politics, I figured psychology would be a really good foundation."

Initially drawn to study political science at Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in Vermont, Marea’s path changed when she realised that psychology is present in all facets of life, including politics.

“Due to its holistic nature, psychology would allow me to do anything, and even if I did want to eventually get into politics, I figured psychology would be a really good foundation.”

Over the past three years, Marea has been assessing one potential motivating factor on theory of mind use, gender, to see if that distinction had a motivating influence on how we take each other’s visual, affective, and cognitive perspective (the ability to understand what people see, feel and think).

The most significant result popped out of the visual task, showing participants were more likely to consider the perspective of someone of a different gender than their own.

Interestingly, cartoon males and females were used in the task, “so to think they were motivated to do well with a member of another gender is surprising, and actually hilarious,” Marea says.

The research highlighted the importance of social contexts and may suggest the development of highly sophisticated rules of engagement between genders over a long period of time.

Marea has followed in the footsteps of her parents, Head of Department of Psychology Professor Mike Colombo, and Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Psychology Harlene Hayne.

Professor Colombo says he is incredibly proud to see Marea earn her PhD, and the fact she earned it in the same discipline and in his own department is the “icing on the cake”.

"... she has pursued her intellectual passion while at the same time filling her life basket with a range of other enriching activity. As her mother and her Vice-Chancellor, I could not be more proud of what she has achieved."

“As I grow old my memories will fade, but not the memory of my daughter presenting her research to the Department, contributing to our understanding of how the mind works, fluid in her speech, and in complete command of the literature,” he says.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Hayne adds, “Marea has done exactly what I encourage all of our Otago students to do—she has pursued her intellectual passion while at the same time filling her life basket with a range of other enriching activity. As her mother and her Vice-Chancellor, I could not be more proud of what she has achieved.”

Marea is now looking forward to taking a year out from her research which will include teaching marine biology at a school education programme off the coast of California.

“A doctorate feels hard in lots of ways as it’s a constant challenge of thoughts and ideas, but I will always consider myself very lucky for this experience.”

However it’s the new challenges ahead that Marea is also looking forward to including learning from colleagues with specialised knowledge in marine biology with a host of practical skills.

The multifaceted scuba diving Dive Master also hopes to take time out for improvisation, and hopefully work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival too.

“Oh, and I also want to figure out how to get to South America as I like to salsa dance so that will be fun!”