Last term saw the return of the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences (SPCLS) Dragon’s Den event where Early Career Researchers (ECRs) pitch collaborative research ideas to a panel of ‘Dragons’. Just like the real Dragons’ Den, the Dragons were sitting on piles of money (figuratively speaking) with a total of up to £5000 up for grabs for the ECRs who were able to convince the Dragons to invest in their collaborative and interdisciplinary research projects.

Our Dragons were Professor Carmel Houston-Price, Head of SPCLS; Professor Anastasia Christakou, Director of the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics (CINN); Professor Ludovica Serratrice, Director of the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism (CeLM); and Professor Carien Van Reekum, Research Division lead of the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences (PCLS).

Four of the five projects pitched successfully secured funding. The event was jointly hosted by SPCLS and the ECR-led interdisciplinary initiative CINNergies. Applications reflected the collaborative and interdisciplinary remit, with ECR-led collaborations from across PCLS, Agriculture, and Biological Sciences.

Applications came in on a variety of topics, from the use of counterfactual thinking in chronic pain, to perceptions of nature and engagement with environmental causes. All received a grilling from the Dragons who dug deep into their rationale, methodological approaches and planned outcomes for return on investment. The audience also received progress reports from last year’s winners to hear how their projects are progressing.

Successful pitches

Raluca Briazu (PCLS) and Wiebke Gandhi (PCLS)
Amount awarded £700
If only I didn’t have this pain…

This project brings together ECRs from across SPCLS. The project will seek to assess the link between counterfactual thinking and the experience of pain. Patients with chronic pain often engage in counterfactual thoughts namely the mental simulation of alternative outcomes. Such thoughts can often be helpful in how people cope with distressing situations or plan for future behaviour. However, we do not yet understand the role such thoughts might play in how one copes with pain. This is important because pain is often uncontrollable, which may have a critical influence on the benefits often granted by counterfactual thoughts. The researchers, therefore, want to gain an understanding of how counterfactual thoughts can impact the experience of uncontrollable pain, especially in relation to controllable pain.

The researchers said: “The funding will enable us to run an experimental study. The study will compare pain intensity and pain-related affect of participants considering counterfactuals whilst undergoing pain manipulations against participants not considering such thoughts. Ultimately, we hope these insights will further guide work in patients with chronic pain.  We are really grateful for the opportunity granted by Dragon’s Den competition as it instigated this interdisciplinary endeavour and allowed us to present our ideas in a fun format.”

Sam Poskitt (Agriculture) and Aileen Ho (PCLS)
Amount awarded £1,100
Identity, perceptions of nature and engagement with environmental causes in Reading

Access to and engagement with nature are increasingly recognised as important to mental and physical health, even more so since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Equally, nature is under increasing threat, as a result of global environmental challenges, and a range of movements have arisen to address this. However, engagement both with natural spaces and environmental movements tends to be higher among white, middle-income social groups, and approaches to address environmental challenges are often driven by how these groups perceive nature should be experienced. This project, entitled “Identity, perceptions of nature and engagement with environmental causes in Reading,” aims to explore: 1) how different people experience nature in different ways; 2) how different people think about the environment, environmental problems and how to solve them; and 3) to learn about what barriers and opportunities exist for people to connect with nature and environmental movements in Reading.

The winning pitchers said “The funding from the CINNergies Dragon’s Den competition will enable us to conduct a ‘citizen science’ approach that will involve research participants record their everyday interactions with and experiences of ‘nature’ over the course of 14 days, before being invited to a half-day workshop to discuss their experiences and explore themes related to their perceptions of nature, perceptions of environmental challenges, and engagement with environmental movements. Pitching the research idea to the Dragon’s Den panel was a novel and fun way to prepare a research proposal, and then receive useful questions and feedback from experienced researchers. The funding is a great opportunity to kick-start a novel, interdisciplinary research idea.”

Nick Thompson (PCLS), Elin Williams (PCLS)
Amount awarded £1,500
Masking gaze perception

While the use of face masks has played a role in slowing the transmission of covid-19, it has significantly changed the way in which people interact with one another. However, relatively little is known about the impact of face masks on social perception. This study will investigate the accuracy with which autistic and non-autistic observers perceive the direction of another person’s gaze while the lower half of their face is obscured by a face mask. Additionally, the researchers will use eye-tracking to investigate the visual fixation patterns of participants during the gaze perception task, to examine whether directional cues of the face are utilised differently across mask and no-mask conditions.

The winning pitchers said “The funding obtained from Dragon’s Den will allow us to recruit 35 autistic and 35 non-autistic participants. It was a fun way to propose a new study and gain helpful feedback from the Dragons – we would definitely recommend it to other ECRs! We look forward to starting the project and sharing our results in the future!”

Anne-Marie Greenaway (SBS), Wiebke Gandhi (PCLS)
Amount awarded £980
Investigating the pain/dehydration relationship and use of hydration health information and technology in behaviour change in UK BAME communities

This project aims to use modern technology to help community-dwelling older adults to monitor and increase fluid intake. An exciting collaboration between Biomedical Engineers in SBS, and pain researchers in PCLS, this study will be looking at the effect of using smart bottles to improve hydration on pain scores in older adults. The researchers hope their study will provide much needed information for the development of community-based hydration interventions.

The group said: The Dragons’ Den funding will cover the distribution costs of our survey which will gather much needed information from older adults about their hydration knowledge and what informs and modifies their hydration behaviours. The funding will also allow us to run a small smart bottle usability trial. We hope the results will enable us to develop interventions to improve the health outcomes of older adults. Dragons’ Den is contagious. It was the enthusiasm of previous pitchers, openness of the process to any multidisciplinary idea and fun way of gaining funding that led to the current project being developed (Targaryen born!).”

Stay tuned

Congratulations to all the successful applicants. We’ll be catching up with them in the future to see how their projects turned out. Find out about similar events in the future and learn more about the ECR interdisciplinary initiative through the CINNergies website:

CINNergies is an interdisciplinary group originating from the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics (CINN). The group is designed to foster the Integrative nature of CINN, and support interdisciplinary ideas that relate to human thought and behaviour.

Engaging in research with CINNergies can come in many different forms:

  • Feel free to get involved in the existing research agenda in CINN
  • Bring your own ideas that you think fit with our research agenda
  • Bring any other ideas you have that relate to human thought and behaviour, even if they do not relate to current research in CINN – we’ll be excited to explore new interdisciplinary opportunities with you

Membership is open to all ECRs. Get in touch at

Dr Gabriella Rossetti is a CINN Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences.