UBC Psychology faculty receive 2017 MSFHR Scholar Awards

Join us in congratulating Drs. Frances Chen and Rebecca Todd for receiving Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR) Scholar Awards.

The MSFHR Scholar Program supports early career researchers who are building cutting-edge health research programs, training junior scientists and expanding their potential to make significant contributions to their field.

“MSFHR has supported so many excellent researchers who I respect and I’m honoured to be a part of that group,” said Frances Chen, assistant professor in the department of psychology at UBC. “Health research is a foundational component of my work, and this award will let me move forward quickly with a number of studies in my lab that I’m excited to pursue.”

“It’s  wonderful to have a salary award that will support more dedicated research time,” said Rebecca Todd, assistant professor in the department of psychology at UBC. “I’ve been lucky enough to build great team in my lab and getting this award makes a huge difference, allowing us to build on our existing research strengths to make a serious contribution to health research.”

Todd, a proponent of the Fundamental Science Review, adds “Now I wish that CIHR and the Federal government can follow the recommendations of the recent Naylor report. That will ensure that we can rescue health research in Canada from the blows its taken recently and ensure resources are widely available to researchers at all career stages to get the research done. Support the report!”

The MSFHR Scholar Program is designed to attract and foster the development of outstanding health researchers in BC. The intent of the scholar awards is to allow early career researchers to establish an independent research career, build a leading research program, and expand their potential to make significant contributions to their field. The Scholar Program achieves this by providing funding support to a portion of the award recipients’ salaries. The scholar award provides salary support at $90,000 per year, over a five-year term.

“We are continuing to see former Trainees who are now early-career researchers receiving Scholar Awards to further build their research programs and allow them to train the next generation of researchers,” said Dr. Bev Holmes, MSFHR interim president & CEO, in an announcement on July 17, 2017.

Below is an outline of their research projects

Frances Chen | Development and assessment of strategies to promote social integration into new communities

Social connections and social support networks are essential for physical and mental health. In fact, recent research suggests that how long people live is better predicted by the quality of their social relationships and how well they are integrated in their community, than it is by how much they smoke and drink, or whether they are obese. Loneliness, on the other hand, is linked to negative health outcomes including depression, poor sleep quality, more hospital and doctor visits, and compromised immune system functioning.

This research will focus on the processes involved in successful social interactions with strangers, friendship formation, and social integration. It will focus on questions including: Why do some people have a harder time making friends than others? How do people develop a sense of belonging when they move to a new community? How do the size of someone’s social networks, and the availability of social support, influence specific health outcomes like immune function and cardiovascular disease risk? Given that Canadian culture is characterized by high rates of immigration and residential mobility, developing effective evidence-based strategies for combating loneliness and social isolation can have direct benefits for individuals and communities alike.

Knowledge translation activities for this research will include active engagement with broad audiences of university administrators and advisors, student mental health groups, and community members. Dr. Chen will produce reports for groups directly involved in promoting community social integration efforts, whilst serving as a scientific/faculty advisor for initiatives to disseminate research findings directly to the public. She will use research findings to develop specific interventions to facilitate friendship formation and social integration, targeted to individuals who are experiencing social disruptions or difficulty transitioning into new environments. Enhanced knowledge about these topics is expected to contribute to the public good and welfare of British Columbians.

Rebecca Todd | The role of the norepinephrine system in emotionally biased attention and learning

Individuals vary widely in the aspects of the world they perceive and remember: Some filter their environments through rose coloured glasses to perceive sources of pleasure, while others are tuned to signs of threat. Such affective biases in attention influence memory and characterize mood disorders and pathological responses to trauma as well as addictive behaviours. Yet much remains to be learned about neural mechanisms underlying such biases, and the factors that influence their ontogeny and potential for change.

The long-term goal of my research program is to understand the influence of genetic variation and life experience on emotional biases in learning, attention and memory, and how they can be harnessed to treat affective disorders and addiction. This research will 1) have a direct impact on our understanding of basic neural mechanisms underlying such affective biases, and 2) increase our understanding of how genetic variation and life experience shape these mechanisms to produce behaviours linked to mood disorders and addiction, with important implications for assessing vulnerability and optimizing treatment.

My five-year research program aims to investigate the role of common genetic variations that influence neurochemical activity in the brain to the development of behaviour patterns that are linked to such disorders. Extending my previous work on the influence of genetics and trauma on emotional biases in attention, I will now focus on understanding neural mechanisms underlying such biases, and investigate whether such biases arise out of individual differences in patterns of emotional learning. For my single project I will examine the influence of a common genetic variation that influences the availability of norepinephrine, a neurochemical important for emotional influences on attention and memory, in emotional learning. Such research will aid understanding of the currently understudied role of norepinephrine in emotional learning patterns linked to mood disorders and addiction.