Meet the Researchers: Prof George Bishop

13 April, 2011

Professor George Bishop, Head of FASS’ Department of Psychology recently received the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Psychology in Singapore, in recognition of his contributions to the development of Psychology in Singapore as well as the Singapore Psychological Society.

Prof Bishop has spent nearly 20 years with NUS and has been Head of Department since 2005. His research focuses on the various ways in which psychological factors are involved in physical health. In this wide-ranging interview he discusses aspects of his career, the development of Psychology at NUS and the prospects for Psychology as a unique discipline.

Prof George Bishop receives his award from SPS President COL Bernard Lim

When did you first become interested in Psychology as a career?

Well, originally my first choice was to be a concert pianist but that idea went by the wayside! My high school piano teacher advised that although I had promise, I would be happier in another profession. So I took her advice. I was interested in human behaviour and so I chose to major in Psychology with a second major in mathematics at Hope College, a Liberal Arts College. At the same time I also had a music scholarship to study piano performance with the head of the piano department. One of the things I cherish about going to a liberal arts college is the ability to do that kind of combination. My graduate degree and doctorate took me to Yale where I focused on social psychology. As a result of conscription during the Vietnam War I had a military commitment with the US Army which took me to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. It was there in the psychiatry department that I became involved in research related to health psychology, specifically health care utilization and the question of symptom perception. At that time, the latter half of the 1970s, health psychology was only just emerging as an identifiable sub-area within psychology.

What aspect of symptom perception were you working on?

This was also a time when more women were coming into the American armed forces. Since it’s a well established finding that women tend to utilize health care more than men this was creating concerns among military health care planners about future demands on military health care. One of the projects I was working on had to do with gender differences in symptom perception and how likely male and female soldiers were to seek medical attention when they experienced symptoms. After I left the army I continued with research on symptom perception while teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Once I came to Singapore, a natural extension of my curiosity in this arena was extended to the field of cross-cultural symptom perception. Singapore is a very interesting case with its unique mix of ethnic groups and also the different traditions of medicine that can be found in practice here, from Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine to the more scientifically-based Allopathic medicine. People here may seek treatment from one or more of these systems depending on the perception of their illness.

Is this how you became interested in the cross-cultural differences in coronary heart disease?

Yes, it is well-established that the death rates for cardiovascular (heart) disease are much higher in ethnically Indian populations. Epidemiologists studying this global phenomenon have shown that traditional risk factors, such as smoking, exercise, blood pressure, etc, alone do not explain the high mortality. Attention has turned to other risk factors as we as genetic factors that may be involved. , My own area of interest is psychosocial factors and how those interact with genetics. In our work with this we have found ethnic differences in cardiovascular responses emotional stressors, particularly those evoking anger, that are consistent with the higher CHD rates among South Asians. One current focus is examining genetic markers that may be involved in some of these differences.

Tell us about some of the changes you have witnessed and instigated during your time at NUS.

When I first came to NUS Psychology was not its own department but was together with Social Work. It had become available as a major only in 1986. When social work and psychology were separated into separate departments in 2005 I became Head of psychology. Since then the department has grown from 13 to 34 full Ph.D. academic staff with one of the largest student populations in the faculty. We constantly need more space, especially for our research labs. A major addition to our program came in 2008 with the introduction of our Masters in Clinical Psychology which for the first time offers clinical psychology training at a government supported university in Singapore. Previously students went overseas, most often to Australia, to get training in clinical psychology. On returning to work in Singapore they often found that they had to adjust what they had learned to the cultural context in Singapore. With our program we can address these kinds of cultural issues from the very beginning since our students have their placements in local hospitals and clinics.

How has Psychology developed as a discipline in Singapore during your time here?

In the early 1990s the psychology landscape was very sparse with NUS offering the only undergraduate programme. Now NTU and SMU have psychology programmes as do three of the polytechnics. In fact I am an advisor to all three psychology diploma programmes at the polytechnics. Also interest is growing in psychology for its scientific and medical applications. There is a great deal more research funding available and staff in our department have tie-ups with A*STAR, the Duke-NUS GMS, YLL School of Medicine, NKF and other organizations. The government is also aware of the need for more manpower in the mental health professions and the need for trained psychologists.

Do you see these sorts of interdisciplinary connections proliferating at NUS?

Yes, certainly, staff in the department have collaborations with the Faculty of Engineering on topics such as computer vision and social robotics, the School of Computing, Faculty of Science, YLL School of Medicine as well as other departments in FASS. Outside of NUS there are collaborations with A*Star, DSO, and other government and private organizations. In fact psychology can be related to almost everything, given it has to do with human behavior. The world’s most interesting problems and those of the future will need answers from a wide variety of disciplines. Psychology has been described as being a “hub science” which helps to connect with a range of disciplines in addressing these issues.