Child Development: Nature dancing with nurture over time

A 2012 Pediatrics article refers to the process of child development as “nature dancing with nurture over time.” This idea, the push and pull relationship of environment and biology, has fascinated me ever since I first learned about genetics. This summer, I will be Newcomb Scholarsable to continue examining the impact of both nature and nurture in the research lab.

My name is Samantha Perry, and I am double majoring in Neuroscience and Psychology. I am a northern California native, but have found a second home in New Orleans in its rich culture of food, music, people and festivals. In addition to working as a research assistant in a clinical psychology research lab on campus, I work at the Tulane Academic Success Center as a tutor; am a member of Newcomb Scholars, as well as the sorority, Phi Mu; and will start volunteering at the Tulane Parenting Education Program, a clinic that works with young maltreated children and families involved with the department of children and family services, in the fall.

This summer, I will be working in Dr. Gray’s clinical psychology lab (the Tulane Child and Family Lab) at Tulane University, investigating how exposure to trauma at a young age affects a child’s development. This includes examining the factors that protect a child against maladjustment, such as the resilience and the reflectiveness of the mother in the face of adversity. The themes of this research correspond to the work I do as a Newcomb Scholar through expanding my interdisciplinary learning and improving my leadership skills, as well as my future goals as a child psychiatrist. I have worked in Dr. Gray’s lab this past semester, and plan on continuing to do so throughout the rest of my college career.

tulane child and family lab picture

In the application for the Newcomb College Institute grant, we were asked to provide learning objectives for our summer involvement. At first, this was difficult for me because I had been doing this research already for a semester; what more did I have to learn? However, after sitting down and forcing myself to think about what I wanted to get out of doing over 200 hours of research this summer, I realized that getting to assist with this lab on a more in-depth scale would teach me invaluable skills. I became more and more excited about the prospects of enhancing my professional development. First of all, through this research, I would like to improve my interviewing skills. I have only been on the interviewing side once before, and I think that knowing how to interview someone will help me to become a better interviewee. Secondly, I want to learn the process of speaking with at-risk families and children about their experiences. If I am going to be working with families who have experienced trauma for the rest of my life, as I plan to do, I want to get a head start on discussing sensitive material with at-risk children and their parents. Thirdly, I want to become more familiar with how to conduct research, which will be an invaluable skill I can utilize in writing my Honors and Master’s theses. Similarly, I want to learn how to analyze data more effectively, whether it be coded data from interviews or self-reported surveys, or physiological data from electrodes. Additionally, I hope to gain more practice in statistical analysis, which will help me in my own research. Finally, I hope to expand my perspective on the social climate of New Orleans. Through listening to the stories of the participants, I will be exposed to behavioral challenges, and their socioeconomic and cultural roots.

The Newcomb Scholars program and the Newcomb College Institute aim to cultivate compassionate and strong women leaders. Overall, this research involves interviewing mothers and their children, facilitating cognitive tests for the children, and measuring physiological responses of the participants throughout the process. My role includes recruiting mothers for the study; analyzing interviews, cognitive tests and physiological data; and writing literature reviews. To appeal to mothers to participate, I need to be outgoing, confident, compassionate and emotionally available, all leadership skills fostered by the Newcomb Scholars program. During part of the process, we speak to mothers about how they cope with their own experiences of trauma, how they help their child cope, and how their relationship with their child impacts their perspective on their child’s adjustment to society. We can then draw conclusions about traumatic experiences on a child’s development, as well as how caregiver factors buffer the impacts of trauma. The results are far-reaching: they can influence policy-making, education, parenting strategies, medical care, and more. In this way, Dr. Gray’s research uses an interdisciplinary approach similar to that of the Newcomb Scholars program.

These women’s coping mechanisms highlight their resilience in the face of adversity. Their stories empower me to make a difference in their world. Through transcribing interviews, I see the impact of mothers on their children’s lives. This is the most basic form of leadership—leading your children into the world, and helping them grow into happy and well-adjusted adults.

Because I am assisting on research, I am not doing much to prepare for it, other than moving my furniture and belongings into my house for the summer. I will also be spending two relaxing weeks at home before I return to New Orleans and jump back in to the swing of things. The lab has a meeting the day I return, and I will know more about the specific goals of the summer research. During the spring semester, I would work in the lab around 6-8 hours per week; now, I am increasing that to around 20 hours per week, which will be a huge shift. As a result, I will get to work on projects other than transcribing interviews and data entry, such as recruiting moms for the study, literature reviews, and more. Overall, I look forward to the opportunity to delve deeper into this research, especially with my newfound level of involvement.  Through this research, I hope to participate in a project that is helping to bring new perspectives to the ever-growing field of early childhood development. I hope to use this grant to increase my depth of understanding and involvement in a subject about which I am passionate and hope to make my life’s work.

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