Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Emma Ward

Date of news: 24 December 2016

For this month's The Life Of..., we interviewed Emma Ward, PhD student at the DCC and part of the BabyBRAIN research group.

emma_wardWhat's your name, nationality, current function, and department?

Emma Ward, British, PhD student in the DCC.

What is the topic of your PhD project and what does your project look like in practice?

My project is part of a longitudinal consortium on the early development of autism. We work with children who are considered at high-risk for autism by virtue of having an older sibling with autism. The children visit us regularly from when they're 5-months to 3-years old. In practice, I spend about 25% of my work time directly with families, and this involves running eye-tracking and EEG experiments with the children but also having lunch with the family, chatting about the child and any concerns the parent might have, and filming behavioural assessments that are done by our clinicians. The rest of my work time I spend developing ideas for my next experiments (some with the children within the longitudinal cohort and some with older children), programming these experiments, maintaining the database of all the testings of all the families, having lots conference calls and meetings with the other collaborators, and in the minutes I find in between these things, writing abstracts and presenting my work, going to talks and workshops, thinking about analysis and learning new skills... The normal PhD things.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was little I told my mum I wanted to be a lollipop lady (the person who helps young children cross the road outside schools), and then if I had any spare time, I would be a policeman as well. When I was a bit older, I told her I wanted to be a sociolinguist, and she asked what on earth a sociolinguist does.

What has your career path been so far and how did you come to your current position?

I did my Bachelor's in Psychology and spent a year studying abroad to take Linguistics and Education courses. I was most interested in cognitive development, and my thesis was about executive control in bilinguals. I did a short internship in a psychotherapist's office after graduating, and then I worked as a teaching assistant with teenagers for 2 years. After that break from academics, I did my Master's in Psychology of Language, in Edinburgh. There, my thesis was about whether the visual environment affects how we describe the objects we see. After that, I went back to working in education with teenagers for a year before applying to come here.

Who are you working with and what do these collaborations look like?

My supervisor is Sabine Hunnius and my promoter is Jan Buitelaar, so I work with people in the DCC and at the Karakter centre for child psychiatry. In our testdays, I always test with a clinically-trained RA, so that's a very close working relationship, and I communicate a lot with the PhD students who started our longitudinal cohort. My position is also part of a Marie Curie training network, so I am part of a group of 15 PhD students who meet every 6 months for trainings and talks. I like the network a lot because it gives me contact with people who are doing similar work but from other perspectives, for example in labs with more of a medical focus, or labs with more clinical psychologists. I'll also do a lab visit for at least 3 months to Sweden, where I'll do an experiment with one of their PhD students from my network. I'm really looking forward to that because we're interested in similar concepts but our theoretical motivations and our experimental paradigms are quite different. I think I'm going to learn a lot.

What aspect of your job do you excel at?

I recently had some nice feedback that I'm doing a good job of testing one of the big theories in my field, which so far has great theoretical and review papers but not so many bespoke empirical studies. I also like to think I'm good at making babies and parents feel comfortable in the lab environment, but you'd have to ask them.

What aspect of your job is or has been a challenge for you?

Because our study is longitudinal, and the children were recruited over a few years, I have to implement my studies quite fast, and then wait a long time for the whole cohort to become the right age to participate in those studies. It's been hard for me to adapt to working on so many projects at once, and to find a balance between being present at our many test days and spending enough time in my office to move forward on the behind-the-scenes things like getting approval for and programming the next experiment and learning about analysis while I'm still collecting the data. This is something that's getting better mostly by me learning how to ask for help when I need it and learning when to stop working on something that's not perfect, but good enough.

What does your perfect weekend look like?

I love Friday drinks, I really appreciate that about the Donders; that we all make the effort to do something social together and include everyone who wants to join. I recently started bouldering and it's so fun and rewarding that I want to do that more (I thought I would be useless because I see myself as both clumsy and unfit, but it's actually very easy to start learning). I also need a good amount of alone time, so I might do one social thing in the weekend and spend the rest cycling in the woods when it's warm, or watching TV, reading and drawing. I notice that I read for fun less when I'm reading a lot at work, so I'm trying to be creative and find new hobbies that I can do during quiet time by myself.

What is your favorite book and why?

I've had a lot of favourite books, and I couldn't choose one now because I think they were all formative at different stages of my life, and none is more important to me than the others. I think it's most important to me that they contain confident, empowered characters who have strong, honest relationships (or are at least working towards them). I also tend to look for books that have lots of diverse characters, because I think it's critically important to represent more than just cisgendered heterosexual, middle-class white people.

What is an important life lesson you have learned in the past?

I think it's really important not to compare yourself to others, even if you feel that you're in a competitive environment. I think all of your experiences contribute to who you are and what you're doing now, so it never makes sense to feel less than anyone else, and for the same reason I think it's important not to worry about making a wrong decision now. Whatever project you decide to do, or how you decide to approach it, as long as you're excited about it, you'll learn a lot and that's the valuable thing.

Do you have any handy PhD project-related tips and tricks to share?

I think it's really important to have a culture of helping and collaborating, and to know that it's okay to ask for these things. I spent a long time in the beginning trying to solve everything by myself, because I didn't want to burden other people by asking them to help me. I had to realise that for the people with the right skills, these tasks were very easy and that it only seemed like a burden to me precisely because I didn't have those skills yet. While they helped me, they were also teaching me, so I also realised that getting help is not the same as giving up and letting someone save you.

My supervisor also talks about how we should always pay people back for favours, but that it doesn't necessarily have to be the same person who helped us. Maybe the person who helped you doesn't need your particular skills in return, but someone definitely does. I like this idea a lot because it creates a community of helpers where everyone contributes.