Take 10 with... Karen Waldie and Elizabeth Peterson

This week, Associate Professor Karen Waldie and senior lecturer Dr Elizabeth Peterson from the School of Psychology give us 10 minutes of their time to discuss dyslexia, longitudinal data collection, and the hopes and dreams parents have for their unborn children.

1.  Describe your research topic to us ten words or less.

Karen Waldie: “I research in the area of developmental cognitive neuroscience.”

Elizabeth Peterson (Liz): “I research pathways that promote positive human learning and development.” (InSCIde Scoop note: Bravo for exactly 10 words!)

2.  Now describe it in everyday terms!

KW: “I study the predictors and causes of problem behaviour and cognitive problems in kids.”

EP: “I study how we can help develop happy, healthy, well rounded and resilient young people and how self-beliefs affect a person's well-being, learning and educational outcomes.”

3.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

KW: “I collaborate with Liz and others in Psychology and Population Health on the Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study*. I also collaborate with people in the Department of Paediatrics working on the longitudinal Auckland Birthweight Collaborative (ABC) study.

“Prospective longitudinal studies are best for allowing us to evaluate associations between early risk factors and the development of cognitive and behavioural problems. These factors include perinatal adversity (for example, influences in the womb or birth weight), maternal and paternal mental and physical health, family characteristics and demographics.

“We try to identify and relate behaviours that are consistent over time to these particular environmental exposures, and further define them with respect to presence, timing and chronicity. I’m particularly interested in understanding gene-environment interactions.”

EP: “I collaborate with Karen and others in Psychology as well. Currently, most of my external collaborations are with people working on the GUiNZ study.

“The diverse range of discipline-specific expertise in GUinNZ helps bring a broader perspective to my research and encourages me to ask more policy-relevant research questions.

“I also have wonderful colleagues in the Faculty of Education who I really enjoy talking to and working with, as I have a strong research interest in students’ beliefs about learning and failure. We also share postgraduate supervision, which is fun.”

4.  What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

KW: “My research techniques can be categorised into those that rely on acute cross-sectional experiments, and those that rely on data collected from longitudinal studies. One day I might run an EEG experiment with a teen with autism, and the next I’ll be analysing data from GUiNZ.”

EP: “My research activities vary a lot. Last week for example, I reviewed questions for the eight-year GUiNZ data collection wave on the sorts of responses kids might have to physical and verbal aggression on the playground.

“More generally I’m focused on getting GUinNZ findings out there through publications and policy briefs so we can show everyone the huge value of the study (especially the full cohort), and how we can use this rich resource to make a real difference to the lives of all New Zealand children and their families.”

5.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

KW: “I really like working with, and mentoring, postgraduate students. I’m very lucky to have a great group of students working with me right now, as well as a post-doc who has come up with a new remediation programme for kids with learning difficulties.”**

EP: “I like working in a team that is trying to produce robust evidence that can be used to make a differences to the lives of New Zealanders, particularly those that have don’t have it easy.

“I also enjoy working with my postgraduate students and learning from them. I like teaching too, especially when you see the a-ha! moment on students’ faces!” (InSCIde Scoop note: Surely the best part of teaching… No?)

6.  Tell us about something that has surprised you or amused you in the course of your research?

KW: “When I first came to New Zealand from Canada in 1998 (fresh out of a PhD looking at left-brain right-brain differences), I was told that there was no such thing as ‘dyslexia’ in New Zealand.

“The Ministry of Education did not recognise it as a true, brain-based condition, so I found it difficult to raise funding to get my research here off the ground.

“I’ve since been able to run neuroimaging experiments (EEG, fMRI) to show brain-based differences between neurotypicals and individuals with conditions such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism.”

EP: “When I was working on the GUiNZ parents' hopes and dreams data for a research paper, some of the comments the parents made about their hopes and dreams for their unborn child made me almost cry, such as ‘I hope they do not hate me, that’s the main one’, ‘I hope she doesn’t do the same mistakes that I did’ and ‘I hope they never have to worry about money or food’.

“There were also some lighter comments like one mum who said, ‘I hope he’s an All Black, no pressure!”, and a dad who said, ‘I hope he has his mother’s nose’!” 

7.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

KW: “Because of the lack of government funding for my dyslexia research, I was lucky enough to get Faculty of Science funding as well as philanthropic funding.”

EP: “I think the biggest challenge for my research is finding time to do it.

“The problem is, research is a long-term commitment and more immediate deadlines keep popping up, especially as more service and admin roles seem to be delegated to academic staff. I am trying to get better at saying ‘no’ or ‘not yet’! (InSCIde Scoop note: Do let us know when you have the secret, Liz!)

8.  What questions have emerged as a result?

KW: “I’ve been able to show brain-based differences between neurotypicals and individuals with dyslexia, and this helped the Ministry of Education to formally recognise dyslexia in 2008.

“There are always new questions to answer in my field, which is why working with the GUiNZ is so important.

“My first important publication with this cohort showed that depression in women is more common during pregnancy than after they have given birth. This is important because maternal depression is a risk factor for problem behaviour in later years.

“At the moment, Liz and I (and the whole Growing Up team) are trying to secure funding to complete the upcoming age eight assessment, which consists of face-to-face interviews with the children and their families.”

EP: “The questions that arise from the challenges with my research are mostly self-ruminations, such as ‘Why am I working these crazy hours?’ (especially as I have a young family), ‘Am I really making a difference?’, and ‘Is the difference big enough to be worth the personal sacrifices?’

“I don’t know the answer to those questions yet, but I know I would miss the research and the interactions that come with that, if I didn’t do it.”

9.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

KW: “I hope to eventually understand the cause(s) of neurodevelopmental problems such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism. This will require a combination of my neuroimaging research, genetic research and life course data from longitudinal studies.”

EP: “I hope that our team’s research will convince policymakers and funders of the importance of continuing to fund GUiNZ so we can continue to collect rich longitudinal data about the increasingly diverse lives of New Zealand children, their families and their complex trajectories.

“More importantly, I hope the information we collect can be used to better understand the persistent disparities and inequities that we see in New Zealand, and inform strategies to address them.

“I hope that we can continue to use the data to show what keeps some families stuck in complex disadvantaged environments, and what supports others to move out of disadvantage. I hope I can make a difference.”

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research selves?

KW: “I would definitely tell myself to really enjoy my two-year post-doc (at the world-renowned Dunedin Study). Though I really did enjoy my time in Dunedin working with fabulous scientists, I also didn’t appreciate the luxury of just concentrating on research. Now, research gets squeezed in amongst teaching and administration!”

EP: “I agree with Karen. I would tell myself to appreciate my doctorate and post-doctorate more. I miss the luxury of focusing on one main project and having time to stop and think and explore.”