Stepheni Uh is a PhD candidate in the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Here, she tells us about her research studying the cognitive effects of growing up in poverty, the gap between science and policy, and falling asleep in an MRI machine.

My research explores the neurophysiological bases of cognitive and emotional resilience in children growing up in poverty. It’s part of a large project in our lab: the Resilience, Education, and Development (RED) study. Poverty, lack of resources, and the stresses from this sort of deprivation are global issues.

Ultimately, we are interested in what underlies the ability to positively adapt to adversity at the brain level and how it manifests behaviourally, such as through educational outcomes or mental health. We will assess children via brain scans, cognitive tests in the form of iPad games, and mental health through various questionnaires for both children and parents. In this way, we hope to get insights into behavioural profiles and environmental factors that may link to brain physiology and areas that may be unique to the resilient children.

My first year has involved a lot of study design, recruitment, and experimental sessions for the RED project. There are multiple aspects of the study, but mainly I have been involved in designing an fMRI task to tap into different brain areas that are involved in both cognitive and emotional processing as well as running the study sessions, which are for children between seven and nine years old and involve structural and functional brain scans, plus behavioural games and assessments.

It's not every day you can pop into an MRI scanner and get a really cool 3D image of your own brain. It also really puts things into perspective about resilience in children when they are able to complete your study scan tasks. In particular, doing the resting state scan - a functional scan during which children are not completing any games or watching anything to capture their ‘brain at rest’ and are instructed not to fall asleep. I most definitely fell asleep.

I think there is a much more interest now in bridging the gap between science and policy but there is still much to be learned for how to properly translate one for the other - also considering how research works at a global scale. I hope my research will be translated into evidence-based policies and interventions to support the well-being of children from all backgrounds.

I’m a big advocate for the importance of looking at the ethical, legal, and social implications of any neuroscientific research. Especially with the rise in neurotechnologies that mimic - or try to mimic – human cognition, I think these are serious discussions that we must have alongside this scientific progress.

I have been extremely fortunate with my supervisor, the welcoming nature of my department, as well as the community provided by the Gates Cambridge Scholars. They all provide a level of support that I think is so important for postgraduate students, which is often overlooked despite the rising number of mental health issues in postgrads throughout the world. Furthermore, Cambridge itself is very unique in its global diversity. It is enlightening to be able to discuss perspectives and cultural insights about one particular idea or topic.

Stand your ground: there are always going to be people who tell you that it is impossible to do A, B, or C in consideration of other personal life choices you want to make. In the end, no one knows your capabilities better than yourself - be resilient, embrace and grow from failures, self-reflect, know when to say no to keep standing your ground to accomplish what motivated you to consider a STEM career in the first place.

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