Professor Peter Rendell retires

Next week marks the retirement of Professor Peter Rendell, whose distinguished career in psychology at ACU, and one of its predecessor institutions, has stretched over 41 years.

Peter began as psychology lecturer at Christ College, Melbourne, before it amalgamated with other colleges to establish ACU in 1991.  He says it has been amazing to see how both ACU, and the discipline of psychology, have evolved over the last four decades.

“To go from working in a small community-based teaching college, become part of a national research university, and then see it transform into one of the highest-ranking Catholic universities in the world… you see you have so much opportunity to reinvent yourself,” Peter said.

Moving into research

Peter’s own reinvention saw him completing his PhD in 1995 and transitioning from a teaching/leadership role into a research-focussed career.  It was a lot of hard work and sustained effort in the early years, which paid off in the long term.  Peter has become an internationally-renowned researcher in the areas of cognition and emotion – particularly working with aging adults and clinical populations.  Peter has an extensive list of publications, and his research projects have attracted nearly $2 million in external funding.

“It’s so helpful to go through that transformation while working alongside people who complement you, they have different skillsets and they make your work better.  I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of great people both at ACU and with researchers across Australia and the world,” he said.

Indeed, Peter has been a visiting researcher to many universities including in Canada, UK, USA, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Poland and Japan.  He marvels at how much easier collaboration has become.

“Previously you really only had the chance to establish collaborations with international researchers when you ran into them at a conference, and then further contact would be by mail.  But now collaboration can be instant with things like Skype.”

Accessing journal articles and information from around the world has become a lot faster with technology also.

“In my early days as a researcher, if I wanted to submit a paper to a journal, I’d have mail a typed manuscript by sea to the US, and wait for a month for it to arrive.  These days you can submit a paper with just the push of a button.”

Peter says he has enjoyed the broadening of enquiry within the psychology discipline, from a more narrow behaviourist focus that studied observable behaviour only, to a broader exploration of the role of cognition, emotion and exploring the workings of the inner mind.

“The development of neuropsychology and observing what’s happening in the brain is very exciting.”

One of the highlights of Peter’s career was co-founding the Cognition and Emotion Research Lab at ACU with Associate Professor Gill Terrett.   What started as an informal meeting group for research students grew and grew over the years, attracting funding and then evolving into the fully-fledged Cognition and Emotion Research Centre.

“Throughout the history of the university, and particularly in psychology, I think we have punched above our weight and we have much to be proud of,” Peter said.

Exploring empathy and memory

Peter’s research interests have particularly explored prospective memory (remembering to carry out future intentions) and how empathy hinges on the ability to recognise the emotional expressions of others.

His findings have shown how both of these abilities are made up of complex processes, which can be impaired in people who have certain conditions, or which can be impacted by ageing.

As ACU continues to strive to make impact through empathy, Peter hopes his research and future research will promote more compassion and understanding about how these impairments can impact on behaviour.

“For example, when an ageing person does not remember to take the medication that they had intended to take, this is often described as “non-compliance” with their treatment.  When someone who may have impairments in reading emotional cues does not show empathy, we may write them off them as “rude”.    Through awareness of the complex processes that are necessary prerequisites for these abilities, such as recognising other’s facial emotion expressions in order to have empathy, we can move away from using these judgmental labels.   We can realise that some people need to be supported with different strategies to be able to do the things that the rest of us take for granted.”

Over his career, Peter has kept busy by serving on numerous committees including the ACU Academic Board.  He has also supervised over 80 Doctoral, Honours and Masters students.

“I’ve gained a lot of satisfaction from watching students grow their skills, and will continue to support eight PhD students as a co-supervisor as I move into retirement.”

For the next phase of his life, Peter is looking forward to spending more time in his garden, at the beach house, and with family, especially his three-year-old grandson.

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