The unusual perks of my research job

Dr Sophie Reijman

Dr Sophie Reijman researches children’s mental health at the University of Cambridge. She explains how her research career has unfolded so far.

The dynamics of family relationships and how these influence children’s mental and physical health are an important part of our research at the Applied Social Science Group here at the University of Cambridge.

Our goal is to improve family mental health. We try to identify what is going on for families and look for better ways of assessing and treating mental health.

For all of us, the relationship we form with our caregivers is our first one in life. Early on, we depend on them to help us regulate difficult emotions in everyday life, such as fear and distress. This helps to shape our capacities for self-regulation, influencing our sense of self, our social relationships, and our health over the course of life.

Some parents provide warm and supportive care, while others, through their own personal struggles or circumstances, may not always be able to provide a child with the support he/she needs.

The research I do looks into the causes and consequences of those variations in parental care, in order to inform supportive prevention and intervention programs for families. In particular I look at the patterns of parent-child interaction as they emerge over the first year of life.

I actually wasn’t sure I had made the right choice when I started my Psychology degree in Valencia, Spain; so much of the material seemed dry and far removed from the study of the psyche.

In my second year, in a Developmental Psychology course, I was introduced to attachment theory, and it provided a framework for making sense of family relationships and child development which I instantly recognised as true.

That sounds a bit soppy, but those classes really were both discovery and recognition, and I knew I had found what I had been looking for — something that speaks to the core of a person’s life experience. Having a phenomenal teacher helped.

An odd combination of randomness and timing and the occasional proactive outburst led me into my research career.

Around the time that I began to focus on attachment theory, back in my second year in Valencia, I was sharing my daily train commute with a teacher from the department. I told her about the classes I was taking, and she said she was doing attachment research with preterm infants, and invited me to assist her in the study.

It was a wonderful experience to work with the one-year-olds, and it made the theory tangible. The project took us to the International Attachment Conference in Barcelona. I was in awe of the research that was being done in the field, in particular by two presenters from Leiden in the Netherlands, Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg and Marinus van IJzendoorn.

Their work addressed the complex interplay between genetic predisposition and environmental factors in determining child outcomes, which was a revelation to me in terms of what research can be.

See a little more about attachment theory

Watching them, I was wryly aware of the fact that they were based at a stone’s throw from my home town, yet I was living in Spain.

Three months later, I moved back to the Netherlands. I emailed Marian to ask if I could somehow be of use in their lab, and she invited me for a meeting. I did my doctoral study in Leiden, and my formal training and “career” as a researcher really started.

I was finishing my PhD when my supervisors alerted me to a recruitment ad that Robbie Duschinsky had put out, for a post at the Applied Social Science group that he leads. It was a dream! A research project with attachment theory at its centre, with flexibility, room for creative input, and fantastic international collaborators. And all this in iconic Cambridge.

In hindsight too, I couldn’t have wished for a better expansion of my training as a researcher. Robbie is, in part, a historian. He offered me new perspectives and experiences. From the long-running Leiden department in the Netherlands, I came to the Applied Social Science Group (ASSG) in its founding stages in Cambridge. I was actively involved with Robbie in early decisions, recruitment and other aspects of the building of a research programme.

I came from a quantitative research background and I did my first work as a qualitative researcher here. And from specializing in developmental psychology, I was introduced to the interdisciplinary world of primary care research, public mental health and medical humanities approaches.

With our different backgrounds, Robbie and I worked very well and easily together from the beginning. Being part of this group has irreversibly changed my outlook on the possibilities of research, the dynamics of team work, and — dare I say it — life.

In our research group, the focus is on the social factors that influence families and children, especially those that exert an influence early in a child’s life. We know that things like poverty and stress can have short- and long-term effects on variations in health.

I’m looking at how institutionalised care — growing up without a stable attachment figure, such as in an orphanage — affects cognitive and neurological development, physical growth, and psychopathology.

And, with collaborators from Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Leiden University, I’m applying machine learning techniques to data from the Netherlands, in order to explore the implications of infant mental health for a child’s later physical and mental health.

I’m also involved in a study exploring how attachment theory can be used by professional groups who work to safeguard children, such as GPs. This has included conducting interviews, which I have really enjoyed doing.

It’s not easy to describe a typical day here. With several projects running in parallel and in different stages of completion, the “typical day” keeps changing shape. Since we do most projects in collaboration with international colleagues, plenty of days involve long-distance exchanges of ideas and plans via email and Skype.

New and irresistible opportunities for collaboration keep arising.

The nature of our work schedule can be rather unpredictable on occasions; we laugh about that in our group. And because of the interdisciplinary work we do, we have been known to run from a statistics course to a poetry reading in an afternoon — these are, of course, the best days.

One of the perks of researching children’s mental health is that no one seems sceptical of the usefulness of the work you do ― perhaps because everyone was a child once, and plenty of people are parents.

Usually people relate very easily to the topic of family mental health. They often have a personal story that perfectly illustrates how early childhood experiences have the potential to impact our sense of self, the way we parent our own children, our health and our life course, both for good and for bad.

Working here at the Primary Care Unit at Cambridge is wonderful. In my experience there’s a lovely collegial atmosphere; people are kind, interested, and highly motivated. We hold regular meetings which are a great platform for the exchange of ideas, experiences, and advice.

I realise I’m a biased informant, but I feel despite being new, our research group has integrated swiftly and become an indispensable part of the Unit.

Overall there seems to be an abundance of helpful platforms for the staff: for example, the Qualitative Research Forum facilitates methodological discussions. There is good support for early career researchers in the Unit, and lots of opportunities and encouragement for the development of personal and professional skills. Ah, and every Tuesday we have fruit and cake.

Find out more

Learn more about the Applied Social Science Group where Dr Sophie Reijman works at the Primary Care Unit, University of Cambridge

Contact: Lucy Lloyd, Communications Manager at the Primary Care Unit