I am a cross-species translational neuroscientist, studying the developmental effects of early adversity at the whole organism level.
NHMRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow
I am currently a National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Research Fellow working in the Department of Psychology, Columbia University, New York City. My post-doctoral mentor is Dr Nim Tottenham of the Developmental Affective Neuroscience (DAN) Laboratory.
Joint Appointment at the University of Melbourne
My NHMRC Early Career Fellowship funds my research in the United States through an adjunct appointment in the Department of Psychiatry, The University of Melbourne, Australia. My post-doctoral mentor in Australia is Dr Sarah Whittle of the Social Affective Neurodevelopment (SAND) Laboratory.
I completed my PhD in 2012 in the Department of Psychology, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. My doctoral mentor was Professor Rick Richardson. My doctoral thesis examined the effect of early life adversity on the maturation of threat learning and extinction of threat responses in rodents. After that time, I examined generational effects of early adversity and the effectiveness of probiotics as a treatment for adversity.
Clinical Masters, Psychology
I obtained my training in Clinical Psychology at the same time I completed my PhD, via the 'Combined PhD/Clinical Masters' program at UNSW. My clinical internships included the Child Behaviour Research Clinic headed by Professor Mark Dadds, specializing in family therapy for child externalizing behavior problems (e.g., oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder); there I was mentored by Professor Dadds and Dr Sonia Sultan. I also completed a clinical internship at the Anxiety Treatment and Research Unit at Westmead Hospital, Sydney, a tertiary referral clinic specializing in adult mental health, where I was mentored by Dr Juliette Drobny.
Current research interests and topics of study
Neurobiology of emotion development and parent child interactions
Parental Buffering of Emotion Neurobiology & Generational Mental Health
Emotion learning & associated neurobiology change dramatically across development. Parent child interactions play a critical role in those maturational effects. My research examines how parents regulate emotional reactivity and learning in children. I also examine how parental regulation scaffolds the development of emotion neurobiology, contributing to the integrity of emotion circuits.
I have also begun to examine how the early experiences of our ancestors (e.g., our parents and grandparents) can affect our own emotional development.
Emotion development following adversity
The Acceleration Hypothesis & Neuro-Environmental Loop of Plasticity
In addition to studying typical development, I also study populations that have been exposed to sub-optimal rearing environments (such as animal models of chronic parental absence, and human populations exposed to early stress such as institutional caregiving and chronic childhood disease). By examining these populations and contrasting their development against 'typical' peers I can determine aspects of emotion maturation that are heavily impacted by the environment. Such an understanding will afford us greater insight into the links between adversity and mental illness, and will help us to develop more effective preventions and treatments for such outcomes.
Peripheral regulators of emotion
"I can feel it in my gut"...
Many studies have suggested that our emotional functioning is linked to our gastrointestinal health, particularly in the context of stress. In fact, it is now known that our gut functions almost like a second brain, having a strong influence on how we think, feel, and how we cope with stress. My research in this area examines how gut bacteria change dynamically with stress, and whether early stressors can cause permanent changes to the gastrointestinal bacteria (microbiome) in ways that may increase vulnerability to mental illness. In addition, my colleagues and I have shown that altering the microbiome - through a probiotic treatment - can ameliorate the effects of stress on emotion development in rodents. I am planning to translate these findings to human populations exposed to adversity over the coming years.
Childhood amnesia and the developing memory system
Why can't we remember things that happened to us in our infancy. Why are our memories from childhood generally 'spotty' and difficult to recall? This phenomenon is called 'Childhood Amnesia' and occurs in all altricial species (i.e., those that are born dependent on their parents). My research in this area has examined how early rearing experiences impact the developmental offset of childhood amnesia in rodents. More recently in the Tottenham Laboratory, I have begun to translate my research to humans by investigating the neural mechanisms underlying long-term memory across human development using fMRI. This research is being carried out in collaboration with Dr Lila Davachi at New York University. We recently received competitive intramural funding for this project.
If you want any additional information on my research you can ask for it here.