PhD student profile: Isabella Bower

by Isabella Bower, 10 Sep 2019

I am a PhD candidate in the School of Architecture and Built Environment at Deakin University and work part-time as Research Outputs Coordinator for the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. I received Bachelor of Design (Architecture) from Deakin in 2012 and Master of Architecture at the University of Melbourne in 2014. I’m not sure where my career path will take me, and perhaps my future job/research speciality does not exist yet, but I’m working on bringing it to light.

I trained to become an architect, but at the end of my five-year journey, I felt lost and nearly left, at one stage investigating if I could change career to medical illustration! One project put me back on track, a self-directed research project where I analysed the behaviour of families and staff at The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. I hypothesised there might be a connection between design characteristics (scale of the atrium) and body language, which I thought might have a relationship to mental state. It was the first time I saw a glimpse of how built environment design could significantly impact our wellbeing, but it was very subjective, which frustrated me.

Fast forward five years, I’m midway through a PhD supervised by Associate Professor Richard Tucker (architecture) and Professor Peter Enticott (cognitive neuroscience). My research is trying to understand if we can objectively measure the impact one element of design—scale—has on our emotion using techniques from neuroscience such as electroencephalography. My aim is to build up a comprehensive framework of how all design elements combine and might affect our emotional state. To do this I am controlling the exposure by using a virtual reality CAVE (you wear stereoscopic glasses while standing in a room with projected walls) and monitoring for physiological comfort to ensure this is not affecting results (lighting, temperature, acoustics etc) to pinpoint if we can measure a response from design elements, which may not be consciously recognised or reported.

I am very passionate about my research and could not be supported by better supervisors. I was awarded a grant for Creativity and Innovation and the inaugural John Paul Eberhard Fellowship from the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture in the first year of my PhD. As a result, I will present my findings next year at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, United States. I am giving everything a go, from working with the Students of Brain Research Committee, to attending as many brain science events as I can. I didn’t know the opportunity to pursue research existed until after I graduated, and funnily enough, my PhD perfectly represents my two favourite subjects (science and design) which I was told was not possible to pursue together when I was in high school a decade ago. My work is not conventional and challenging to many designers. Can we really measure what ‘good design’ looks like? What are the policy and practice implications if this was possible? I believe it’s a very significant area of research which has been under realised by my profession.