An Interview with Environmental Psychologist: Anju Sara on Combining Architecture and Psychology

Anju Sara

Anju Sara

The blog’s new contributor Purva Ladge did an interview with Anju Sara, whom she describes as an architect by profession and an environmental psychologist at heart. Anju currently works as an architect at Terrafirm Projects Ltd., Kochi, India, after finishing her Architecture degree at Sathyabama University, Chennai, India, and Environmental Psychology degree at Surrey, UK. She hails from Kerala, India, but has lived most of her life in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Anju has been kind enough to share with us her journey to Surrey and back.

Anju, could you please tell us about your your interest in environmental psychology? What drew you towards the field?

The story begins like this. I was in my 8th semester at college. I opted for a subject called Environment and behavior for our selective module. I found the title very interesting. At that time all of the students were looking for master’s degrees. Unlike the most of my friends, I was never keen on doing M.Arch., and was looking out for alternate options. That’s when we started having classes on the above mentioned subject. I found it so interesting and the theories and research subjects opened a whole new world for me. I was mesmerized at how we rarely think about the psychology of the space we are in and how it affects our emotions and behaviour. I have always been interested in psychology and how our minds work. So when I found a subject that combined both my passion and my interest, I was overwhelmed.

I started my research on that subject and found that there are post-graduate courses abroad in Environmental Psychology. In the beginning, I was confused about whether this course has any connection to architecture and whether would taking it up be a failed attempt. I was also bombarded with questions and criticisms from friends and peers regarding my choice. Also, I personally did not know anyone who had studied this particular subject and the name itself was unknown to us. However, I resorted to Google and spent most of my time reading about the subject and how it’s related to architecture. I found many interesting theories and also blog posts by environmental psychologists which assured me that choosing this path would not be a bad choice, but a bold one.

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University of Surrey, photo by Tim Sheerman-Chase

Wow! That’s quite a prologue to the actual story! Shows grit can write great stories!
Why did you decide to study at University of Surrey? 

During my research on the different universities that teach Environmental Psychology, one of the first names that came up on Google was University of Surrey. I hadn’t planned on going to the UK for my master’s course since I always dreamed about going to the US. I found a few universities that had the course but I was skeptical about the course structure and also the tuition fees.

Upon further research I discovered that University of Surrey was the first university ever to begin a post graduate course in EP and that one of the course directors, Dr. David Uzzel is a world renowned environmental psychologist. I found the course structure quite impressive and decided on applying for the course. I decided on not going through any agents or travel agencies for the application, since I was only applying to one university and I did not want to spend money on that, too. The application process in itself was quite simple and the international student recruitment team at the university did a great job in helping me through it at all the stages. I was also lucky enough to work as an international student ambassador while I was at the University.

The application process took a few months during which I wrote my IELTS and also completed other procedures for it. The day I got the offer letter from the university is one of the best days of my life. I never thought I’d actually get in. However, the University of Surrey has one of the highest number of international students and they always encourage students like us to be a part of their institution.

International students

International students at Surrey; photo by Anju Sara

I myself didn’t know that I was the first Indian to study this course in the University of Surrey. It was an honor to have been the first one to do so. I hope I become an example to many other Indian architects.

I hope so too! Could you tell us about your experience at Surrey?

Going abroad for my masters was a dream come true. I couldn’t believe that it would happen, but it did, and was one of the best years of my life. I got to meet people from different parts of the world, share my experiences with them, get immersed in new culture, form friendships with people from different communities. The feeling is indescribable. My major worry about living in a new country was whether I’d get along with the people there and how would I manage without any friends or family around. However, the University is so acceptable towards international students and student help teams as well as other student organizations within the University make you feel like you are a part of the family.

Events 2

Fun activities organized by students; photo by Anju Sara

University of Surrey is one the top 10 universities according to the Guardian league table and I was lucky to have graduated from it. There are many societies and communities at the university that you can join, and they conduct activities and events throughout the academic year. There are specific events conducted hosted by those societies. Some of the events hosted by the Indian society are Diwali night, Dandiya night, Bollywood party and also Holi celebrations. I was also part of the TEDxSurreyUniversity, which conducted half-yearly TED talks within the campus on interesting topics. I was also a member of the Christian Union at Surrey, where I used to attend worship services every other week and also took part in Christmas carols in December. There are also outdoor food fests during summer and even various talent shows.

Events and activities

Bollywood dance crew; photo by Anju Sara

The amenities in the university are world-class. Students can also do part-time jobs (with time restriction) which will help them pay for your extra-curricular activities and maybe even the flat rent. The accommodation is also affordable, which is one of the best things about the university. The university is located in a town called Guildford, which is just 50 minutes away from London by train or bus. All these made my life there amazing.

All in all, it sounds like you had the time of your life! Could you tell us about your research at Surrey?

I did my final research for dissertation on favourite places and place-self congruity. Basically, the research was conducted to find out if there is any correlation between self-image and image of the favourite place. It was tested on various factors and most of the hypothesis was rejected, but it was found that natural and interesting places were preferred by most of the participants. I conducted the research by sending out questionnaires online through social media and also making use of other facilities available in the library.

Anju at Surrey

At Surrey; photo by Anju Sara

My guide was Birgitta Gatersleben, a senior Environmental Psychology professor at the Department of Arts and Sciences in Surrey. Her research interests include restorative effects of natural environments and improved cognitive functioning. She has conducted research on various topics in this domain, for example, she investigated the psychological effects of exposure to bird song, the effect of outdoor experiences on the mood and confidence of adolescents, the effects greenery on and around residential buildings, and so on.

She guided me on how to formulate the research question and also what areas to focus on, rather than choosing a vast gap in literature. She also provided me with helpful guidelines on how to analyse the data to get the final output. As the research process was quite new to me, she played a tremendous role for me in paving the way through the final research project. She supported me through all of it, and without her guidance I would not have been able to complete my dissertation.

What did you do during your free time? Did you travel?

I am a classically trained dancer, so I was part of the Bollywood dance crew at the university and we took part in a Bollywood dance competition in London. I also took up part-time jobs. I was working at the university as an international student ambassador and was also working at a café in town. I did travel around England and also was lucky enough to travel to Amsterdam. That trip was unforgettable. Also, as London was close by, I did visit go around most of the city during the time I spent there.

Anju in the Netherlands

Anju in the Netherlands; photo by Anju Sara

That’s amazing! Seems like you were able to explore a lot during your stay in UK!
What message would you like to give to future students of Environmental Psychology & University of Surrey?

If you want to study Environmental psychology, choose University of Surrey. To all the architects out there, I warn you, you might find it surprising not to have many practical subjects. The course in itself is highly research-based. I assure you that you will find yourself in the midst of amazing talent and also incredible faculty members who will inspire you in ways you have not imagined possible. You will be treated with the utmost respect and also the university will help you hone your abilities and help you achieve your dream. I guarantee that choosing it would be the best decision ever.

Through this experience I overcame my doubts and inhibitions about the validity of the course for my career and was given a new profound way to think about design. I am now thinking in terms of human behaviour and emotions rather than just the physical aspects of the design. Environmental Psychology has helped me to carve my thinking in such a way, as to think about designing spaces that matter. Before this course, I was restricted to thinking in one way, which was pertaining with the physical attributes of the space and playing with elements of design. But, the environmental psychological theories and research findings have taught me to think of a space as a platform for human behaviour and how minuscule changes in the design can alter one’s behaviour and mood in the space. Some of the theories I tend to use on a day-to-day basis will be the restoration effects of natural environments and also the factors involving environmental behaviour in public places. As most of the projects here at my firm involve residential design, I make use of the theories involving place attachment, place memory and so on. Working here is giving me practical knowledge of the architectural practice. I am simultaneously looking out for research positions, as that’s where I would like to head to in my career, eventually.

Thank you, Anju, for doing this interview for Mind Shaped Box. We hope that your experience will serve as a source of inspiration for other environmental psychology lovers.

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