BabyLab staff spotlight: Professor Denis Burnham


Professor Denis Burnham is the MARCS Institute Director, Leader of the Speech and Language research program at the MARCS Institute, and Leader of the MARCS BabyLab.

What was your first job? Where, when?

As a kid it was working in family real estate business in 1969 when I left school, but I soon knew that was not for me and applied to universities all over the country. When I grew up it was at UNSW in 1981 as a Lecturer in Psychology and researcher in Infant Speech Perception and Language Development.

What has been your greatest success?

Helping to steer MARCS Institute (and within it, MARCS BabyLab) onward, and providing an environment for research students and young and more established researchers to learn, contribute, create knowledge, and flourish.

What's the best thing about your job?

(i) Seeing babies growing up (ii) Seeing PhD students learn more about research (and themselves along the way), and progressing on after graduation (iii) Getting data from the results of experiments, running the stats, uncovering knowledge of how big and little people tick.

Why did you become an infant researcher?

Because (i) my first child (now 40 years old) was born in 3rd year of my undergraduate studies (ii) I was studying psychology and philosophy and grappling with questions of hereditary vs environment and the origins of knowledge, and (iii) around that time exciting new methods for asking non-verbal babies sophisticated questions were starting to emerge.

What do you like to do when you are not working?

RBx2: Reading (good) books and riding (good) bicycles.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A missionary and medical doctor in Africa.

If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go and why?

With my partner to a quiet beach in Thailand at 5pm in the arvo, reading a good book, occasionally looking wistfully into the middle distance, sipping a good whisky, and eating som tam and khaw niouw – with a good bicycle within arm's reach.

What books/authors would we find on your bookshelf at home?

Peter Carey and more Peter Carey, Haruki Murakami, Gillian Flynn, Gabriel García Márquez, Iain Banks, Margaret Atwood, Kate Grenville, Bruce Chatwin etc.

If you could invite anyone famous to dinner who would it be and why?

Aung San Suu Kyi, because she held out and refused to be beaten.

What would you like to achieve in the future?

Given that the Tour de France is probably out if reach, and that 'Ulysses' has already been written: to cycle around the world while writing a damn good quirky novel.