My summer as a Junior Research Assistant

By Alex Earl

I’ve had the great pleasure over the summer to work as Junior Research Associate with Dr Bonamy Oliver in the Nurture Lab that she codirects with Dr Alison Pike. I was supported throughout by my PhD mentor, Rachel Latham.

I’m broadly interested in pre-school children, specifically why some children do better than others in a range of cognitive and social capacities. The Nurture Lab’s research foci are parenting, family relationships, and friendships in relation to prosocial and disruptive behaviours; the work centres on family and twin designs. I have voluntAlex Earleered in the Nurture Lab since my first year at the university, which has given me great exposure to the real world of research, in a field that fascinates me. I am very much hoping to continue my studies on completion of my undergraduate degree, and applying for a JRA with Dr Oliver felt like a natural progression.

The JRA almost works like a miniature PhD, packed into eight weeks. I saw my JRA application as my first funding proposal, and was suitably terrified. However, I was really well supported, it was great exposure to the process, and really exciting when I found out I had been successful. I was interested in investigating the use of Mind-Minded (MM) parenting (the mother’s proclivity to consider her child as having an autonomous mental life). Maternal MM parenting is well evidenced to be a precursor to complex cognitive and social abilities in children, such as Theory of Mind – which in turn predicts a range of outcomes in later childhood and adulthood.

For my JRA, I used data from Dr Oliver’s Twins, Families and Behaviour Study (TFaB) of UK twins born in 2009-2010.

With dads taking an increasingly direct role in raising their children, our research questions examined the associations between paternal and maternal MM, and whether the precursors to paternal MM are the same as those evidenced in maternal MM.

Being part of the lab, and doing ‘actual research’ has genuinely been a pleasure, and has allowed me to embrace my inner geek. I’ve developed a number of skills that I’ll need for the future, and have a load of practical experience to add to my academic C.V. I’ve presented at lab meetings, coded parent speech samples until I cried (mostly joking), and conducted statistical analyses. Importantly, I’ve also learned more about how to interpret the results – some surprising – into a coherent story, building upon the existing literature and enabling clear future directions. Getting real-time feedback on my work has been an invaluable part of the experience.

I’ve also encountered some of the pitfalls of novel academic inquiry – for example, after coding some of the data we realised that there were problems with the existing coding, and I had to start recoding from scratch. I was assured that such hitches are very normal in work as experimental as this! I’ve learned that you have to be pretty thick-skinned throughout the research process, and to try not invest too much in what you expect of the data but rather seek to understand what it tells you. On a personal note, I’m working on reframing what success looks like to me.

I’ve had the chance to build some great relationships, within the University of Sussex and beyond. I’ve been in contact with the academics that are leaders in the field of Mind-Mindedness and Theory of Mind, who have all been incredibly helpful and supportive of what we’re doing. I’ve also been in touch with colleagues at Canterbury Christ Church University, who are trialling interventions using Mind-Minded speak with mums, and I’m looking forward to spending a day in their lab in October, when I’ll present our findings to the team.

So, I’d say I’ve taken two key things from the experience. Firstly, the emotional vicissitudes of the research process are not to be underestimated, but also are to be enjoyed as part of the journey. Secondly, completing a JRA has reinforced my ambition to continue in academia. The experience I believe is a great benefit when it comes to apply for future study; I hope that I continue to carve a path to a research career, at Sussex and beyond.


Alex was awarded the 1st prize in the University JRA competition last Friday 2nd October 2015 for her presentation.

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