2020 Janet Taylor Spence Award
Clinical Affective Neuroscience & Development Lab (CANDLab)
Please briefly describe your research interests.
My program of research focuses on anxiety and stress-related disorders in childhood and adolescence. My lab examines how early experiences such as caregiving and trauma shape the development of threat and safety learning, emotion regulation, and risk for anxiety disorders and PTSD. A central focus of this work is on sensitive periods and developmental changes in frontolimbic circuitry and emotional behavior with the goal to translate this knowledge to optimizing treatments for children and adolescents.
What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?
Early experiences have a profound impact on mental health, with effects lasting into adulthood. Yet there is vast heterogeneity in experiences during childhood, and not all youth exposed to adversity develop psychopathology. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by how experiences shape who we are as people (our emotions, relationships, mental health). In part this interest stemmed from narratives of people in my own family growing up, and there were specific events in my life that deepened this interest. One experience that really brought my interests into focus was working as an undergraduate with the DREAM Program, a student-led mentoring organization for children living in affordable housing neighborhoods in New Hampshire and Vermont. I questioned how the pervasive stressors in the children’s environments influenced their futures. What made some youth more resilient and some more vulnerable to mental health difficulties? How did specific individual and environmental factors affect children’s trajectories, and how could we best facilitate positive change? These questions cultivated my interests in how early adversity shapes development and ultimately contributes to risk for psychopathology.
Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?
I am really proud of the impact that my lab and I have had on policy and advocacy related to migrant children facing family separation and other atrocities at the U.S./Mexico border. At various critical points my lab has come together to support justice for migrant children, including leading efforts to communicate science to the public and policymakers, disseminate resources for migrant families, or generate recommendations for best practices and treatment. I am particularly proud to have contributed a legal declaration detailing findings on early-life trauma that was cited in the judge’s ruling that the U.S. government must provide mental health screening and care to all children and their caregivers who were separated. In part this was such a powerful experience because it builds upon decades of research from developmental and clinical psychologists and represents a major win for science to influence such a case. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with Public Counsel, who represented three migrant mothers in the class action suit on behalf of all separated families. I am also grateful to my incredible colleagues and trainees who have encouraged and supported this work.
What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?
My career has been influenced by the brilliance and generosity of so many people. I am incredibly fortunate to have mentors who are not only pioneers in their fields but who have dedicated so much of their careers to mentoring. Early on, Xavier Castellanos, Mike Milham, Adriana Di Martino, Amy Roy, and Danny Pine played formative roles in my career. I entered their labs with a passion for clinical developmental science, and learned and grew in ways that have influenced my thinking and approach to research and mentoring to this day.
I am incredibly grateful to Ty Cannon for taking a chance on me as a new Ph.D. student and for providing unwavering and supportive mentorship during such a formative time in my training. Ty had a major impact on my thinking about clinical science and early risk identification, and I continue to admire his rigorous approach to science and the tangible clinical impact of his work on individuals who are struggling with mental health disorders.
Nim Tottenham’s mentorship played a pivotal role in my graduate training and my thinking on early adversity that continues to shape my program of research. Nim is not only a scientific force but immensely generous. I simply would not be where I am today without her.
BJ Casey’s mentorship during my clinical internship and postdoctoral fellowship was invaluable to my development as a scientist and fundamental in my transition to independence. BJ empowered and challenged me to push the boundaries of my science while providing endless support and the intellectual freedom to pursue my own ideas. She has inspired me in countless ways, from her commitment to justice and the fundamental right to healthy development for all youth to her dedication to her trainees and the scientific community she has built.
Notably, each one of my mentors has continued to support me in my role as faculty and provided critical guidance at key points in this career stage. Beyond my direct mentors, I have received considerable support from other leaders in the field who have selflessly shared their brilliance and experience to support my early career. I am especially grateful to Deanna Barch, Jenn Richeson, and Jutta Joormann for their wisdom and guidance.
Most recently, my students and trainees have had a tremendous impact on me and on my lab’s program of research. I feel incredibly fortunate to work with such a stellar group. They are brilliant and eager to take on challenges, and their commitment to social justice inspires me. One of the things I’m most proud of is the lab community that we have collectively built. We have fostered a culture of collaboration, lifting each other up, challenging ourselves to do the best science that we can, and translating that work to make an impact for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Lastly, I am grateful for my colleagues who have made Yale such an incredibly supportive and intellectually vibrant place to launch my independent career.
What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?
I am particularly excited about two lines of research that my lab is beginning to tackle. First, we have been thinking deeply about how to parse the vast heterogeneity in early environments to more precisely delineate how key features of stress exposure influence the developing brain and behavior. For example, how does the developmental timing of stress interact with key features of stress exposure, such as the type of stress experienced or the extent to which a caregiver was involved, to influence frontolimbic development and mental health outcomes? Second, we are examining how individuals learn about safety in their environments (e.g., in the context of caregivers) and apply that learning to regulate fear. How do these processes change across development and in anxiety disorders, and how might this knowledge be leveraged to optimize fear reduction based on developmental stage? Ultimately a central aim is to translate our findings to optimize evidence-based treatments or inform novel treatment targets for youth.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
I am deeply honored to receive this award. It is particularly meaningful to me that it is named for Dr. Janet Taylor Spence, a trailblazer for women in science. It is an honor to receive this award alongside colleagues whom I greatly respect and to join a group of former awardees that includes such influential psychologists. Professionally, it is validating and encouraging to see my work recognized in this way, and most importantly, it reminds me of what a team effort our science is. I could not ask for a more wonderful group of mentors, colleagues, collaborators, and trainees with whom to conduct this work. Personally, this feels like a unique opportunity to reflect on my “village.” I am deeply grateful to my partner Dave, who has supported my career every step of the way, and whose own work as a psychologist and advocacy for children and families continually inspire me; to my children Parker and Olivia, whose joy and wonder make me think about development in new ways on a daily basis; to my brother Andrew, my parents-in-law Linda and Walter, and my dear friends for their endless support; and to my parents Laurie and Keith, for always believing in me and without whom none of this would be possible.