THURSDAY, 25 AUGUST 2022
‘It’s never too late to become a scientist, go back to school, or do almost anything’
‘Being a researcher is like being a detective; you’re always trying to solve a mystery’
When you were a child, you probably had many thoughts and questions about pretty much everything. Maybe you dreamt about being a musician and having your own band. Maybe you hoped to become a film star.. Or, maybe, at some point you wanted to find out more about how children can learn new words, how they think, perhaps questioning why music education raises the IQ level in children. In other words, you wanted to learn more about cognitive development and neuroscience. Many school leavers every year are making decisions about whether to go to university, perhaps dreaming about a particular career or worrying about how they will cover the costs. These decisions are difficult, and thoughts on specific careers can change; according to a study published in 2018, half of all people pursuing careers as scientists at universities drop out of the field after just five years. However, do not let that discourage you — in this Q&A we find encouragement that it is never too late to make a change, and even to become a scientist…
Stephen Braren is a scientist interested in how neurophysiological synchrony between the parent and child can transmit or buffer stress, but previously he was a musician and composer. He did not have an easy start, but he became very interested in cognitive development and how higher-learning processes like scientific reasoning develop, mostly because of his own personal experiences and struggles with learning and education.
Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he performed very poorly in school. However, looking back, he realises that his environment was central to these problems, rather than himself: ‘I nearly failed all my math, science, and history courses. They barely let me graduate high school because my grades were so bad. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. Previously, I had always thought that something was “wrong” with me and that’s why I did poorly in school. But, as it turns out, changing the context of learning changed how I learned. Our external social world shapes us far more than we realise. Investigating what these social factors are that influence us psychologically, and how they operate, is exactly what my research is about’, says Braren.
When it comes to the mechanisms and principles of child development, what do scientists still not know?
‘Well, there’s certainly much we don’t know. This is at least partly due to the fact that, unfortunately, most of the research in neuroscience and psychology is still very focused on investigating the individual in isolation. The problem is that this ignores the social and relational aspects of human functioning that are essential to our real lived experiences. Also, most of this research has been through the lens of white, wealthy, western people — both researchers and participants. We need to be better about diversifying our samples, making them more representative of specific populations, and appreciating variability in the things we’re studying’.
When we talk about translating neuroscience into education and health policy, what are the most important steps and what are the biggest challenges?
‘I think the biggest and most important part comes down to communication. I think researchers can do a better job about being proactive in reaching out to people outside of their immediate field and communicate their research in a comprehensible and helpful way. Likewise, policy makers should make it a point to actually seek out and find researchers doing relevant work. There really needs to be a partnership between researchers and policy makers so that they are working together continuously to use research to solve real-world problems’.
As we have seen in other contexts, better communication of scientific work to people outside of academia is a growing concern. During the pandemic, for example, we have increasingly realised the importance of raising awareness among people on the importance of vaccines, especially among parents who do not believe that vaccines are useful.
The pandemic affected his work, but it also spurred the launch of the non-profit organisation Social Creatures with his colleague Dr. Rose Perry. As he explains, the basic idea is giving research back to the community so that they can benefit from it. They created The Creature Times, a newsletter, with the intention of making scientific information freely available and accessible to anyone. ‘One of our first campaigns was raising awareness and funds for low-income children and families who didn’t have internet access or digital devices to stay connected and functional while socially isolated. This was especially important because so many low-income kids needed access to school, which they didn’t have otherwise. More generally, we hope that Social Creatures is an organisation that allows us to apply our skills and knowledge as researchers and scientists to solve real-world problems, especially for marginalised communities”, says Braren.
The COVID-19 pandemic particularly affected marginalised communities, low-income households, with many families pushed into poverty. One key question is, what does this mean for the development of, for example, critical-thinking skills?
‘There are many ways that poverty can impact cognitive development and critical thinking skills. One of the most salient ways is through stress. Living in poverty is associated with numerous risk factors that can increase levels of psychological and physiological stress. Persistent or chronic exposure to elevated levels can actually interfere with how cognitive functions develop over time by structurally changing the brain areas that underlie our critical thinking and executive function skills’, says Braren.
You are the author of the study ‘Maternal psychological stress moderates diurnal cortisol linkage in expectant fathers and mothers during late pregnancy’. What was the most interesting part of the study for you, and how can the results of the study be useful in the longer term?
‘I think the most interesting part of the study was that we found that expectant parents’ daily stress hormone activity was highly similar — it was synchronised. This means that fathers are similarly impacted by their partner’s pregnancy but in a different way. This also suggests that the father, who traditionally has been overlooked in child development research, might play an important biological part in child development even in the prenatal period by influencing the pregnant mother. Hopefully, this can be useful in the longer term by highlighting the importance of integrating the father more into programs and activities during pregnancy’.
I read that weekly music lessons at school for five- and six-year-old children raised their IQ, suggesting that musical training in childhood can have a beneficial effect on the brain’s ageing process. Additionally, it is known that women are more sensitive to music during pregnancy. Do you plan to include music in your future research?
‘Indeed, one of my first interests at a young age in both music and science was in understanding how music and sound can influence our emotion, cognition, and biology. This is a fascinating area of study and, I think, one that we have learned a lot about in the decade or so. What I would like to do is to take some of this research linking specific features of music and sound to improved health and functioning and apply it to real-word contexts targeted at specific populations. One broad application, for instance, could be designing music to reduce stress’.
You returned to college in your 30s and said ‘it is never too late to come back’. Your journey is very inspiring, and we do not often have a chance to hear stories like this. What makes you especially proud, and would you change anything? You are sending a message that it is never too late to become a scientist, which is very powerful.
‘Well, thanks. I think what makes me most proud is just overcoming my own fears and not conforming to other people’s traditional and conservative expectations. No, I wouldn’t change anything. Although I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes, I think I have grown because of them. Absolutely, it’s never too late to become a scientist, go back to school, or do almost anything. It’s difficult, for sure, but anyone can do it. I hope that can be inspiring to anyone’.
When asked what the most fascinating thing is about his job, he said that it is the ability to ask new questions, postulate new hypotheses, and test ideas about human behaviour and functioning. ‘Being a researcher is like being a detective; you’re always trying to solve a mystery. You have to be book-smart, of course, but you also have to be creative and clever. Doing good research requires having a sense of wonder, curiosity, imagination, and exploration. If you lose those things, you stop growing’, says Braren. ‘Expanding our horizons — even just a little — and learning more about what it means to be human is what I try to do at my job every day. It’s incredibly challenging, but the possibilities are fascinating’.
Science is not easy, there are so many things waiting to be discovered. Stephen’s story and experience is proof that even when you think that it is hard, or that you are bad at something like he was in math, it does not mean that it can’t be done and that you cannot be a scientist; it just means that you might need to find a better and braver way.
Maria Bolevich is a science, health, and environmental journalist based in Croatia. Artwork by Anna Germon.