Interesting Careers

An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Environmental Psychologist at a National Laboratory

By Jennifer Veitch, A


PhD (1992) - Environmental Psychology
University of Victoria

Senior Research Officer
National Research Council of Canada - Institute for Research in Construction
Ottawa, Ontario

Does well-being depend partly on how much light exposure one receives each day? Can we influence organizational efficiency by providing employees with meaningful control over their workplace environments? Do measures to save energy in buildings require that we "freeze in the dark"? These are examples of research questions I try to answer with my colleagues from other scientific disciplines, as part of the National Research Council Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC) Indoor Environment research program. I love my job because it lets me do almost exactly the kind of research that first attracted me to psychology.

When I was in high school, my goal was to study medicine. While taking pre-med courses as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, I took introductory psychology as an elective, thinking it would be useful later. That first term my instructor was a wonderful professor, Stuart Kaye. He included a unit on environmental psychology, which is not normally in the curriculum at that level. Unlike many environmental psychologists, who began in social psychology, Dr. Kaye’s background was in experimental psychology. His research focus was on environmental design and its effects on behaviour, with an emphasis on understanding the physical conditions as stimuli and the physiological as well as the perceptual responses to those stimuli. From the beginning, I was hooked; the idea of understanding how places might affect us fascinated me. This provided an empirical framework for understanding environment-behaviour concepts I had absorbed informally at home from my father, who was a university professor of interior design. Only much later did I learn that my father had been an “early adopter” of design awareness and environmental design approaches developed by psychologist Robert Sommer and others.

In the following years, I took Dr. Kaye’s environmental psychology course, volunteered in his lab, and began my own research under his supervision. My fourth-year honours (undergraduate) thesis was on the effects of varying light levels (illuminance) on interpersonal behaviour. Lighting research remains my principal focus today, more than 20 years later.

Environmental psychology has been characterised as a perspective on all psychological phenomena. In my experience, investigating how the physical environment affects people and how people affect the physical environment both require a broad knowledge base. On a daily basis I apply knowledge from sensory and perceptual psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, health psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology, together with an understanding of physics, chemistry, physiology, engineering, and architecture. I credit a diverse experience in graduate school and many wonderful collaborators and colleagues with helping to build that base.

I took an unusual route through graduate school, attending three universities in five years. Moving around was not entirely planned, but I did seek opportunities to take new points of view. During my Master's degree work at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, I was exposed to ergonomics and industrial-organizational psychology concepts. In order to focus more on environmental psychology from a social psychological perspective, I moved to the Social Ecology program at the University of California at Irvine for my PhD. After a year of course work and participation in lab work with Daniel Stokols, financial and personal considerations led me to transfer to the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. There, I completed my PhD in environmental psychology with Robert Gifford. It’s not necessary to move quite so often to get the benefits I did, but there’s no substitute for a broad exposure to different emphases and traditions as a basis for a career in interdisciplinary research.

Like most new PhDs, I intended to follow a career in academia; and like many, I thought that having some postdoctoral research experience would be a wiser path than to leap directly onto the tenure track. I had become aware that there existed a lighting research group at NRC-IRC, so I sent off an inquiry concerning postdoctoral positions. That group had until then focused primarily on sensory psychophysics and on energy efficiency. It seemed like a good way to broaden my experience beyond the applied social psychology end of environmental psychology, so when I was offered a two-year research position, I accepted it. Seventeen years later — much to my surprise — I’m still there. My peregrinations across the continent are now shorter, as I travel to give presentations, attend conferences, and conduct field research.

NRC-IRC is the Canadian government’s principal research and development laboratory for the Canadian construction industry. We work to improve the safety, durability, sustainability, and comfort of Canadian workplaces, homes, and public infrastructure. My job involves conducting original research much like my academic counterparts, but approximately one-quarter of my time goes to various knowledge transfer activities. These include articles for trade magazines, seminars and presentations to professional groups, and contributions to professional and industry committees and standards-writing bodies (including, in my case, psychological associations such as APA Division 34 and lighting-related bodies such as the International Commission on Illumination). My research includes a little sensory psychophysics, but more often looks at how aspects of work environments (for instance, office lighting quality) influence affect, cognition, and well-being; and in turn, how individual behaviours influence building energy consumption (for example, the consequences of individual control over lighting on lighting energy use). I work with excellent colleagues whose professional backgrounds are in engineering, physics, architecture, and acoustics, and together we study phenomena that none of us could examine independently.

This isn’t the job I imagined I would have; but it is the career I set out to pursue. My advice to budding psychological scientists: Find what you love to do, and be flexible in finding a way to keep doing it.