My research interests can be summarised as aiming to investigate and explain human behaviour by considering multiple potential influences at different levels of explanation. For example, people’s genes, their brain structure, their brain functioning, cognitive, physiological and emotional functioning can all affect people’s behaviour both individually and in an interactive way. In addition to this, all individuals exist within a specific environment, as does each level of their functioning (for example a person may behave differently in quiet, relaxed surroundings compared to noisy, chaotic surroundings; and the same cognitive process may have different effects depending on which other cognitive processes are engaged). The environment in the broad sense of the term is therefore also an extremely important factor to consider when aiming to explain human behaviour. Finally, I am extremely interested in ultimately being able to bring about a behavioural change when such a change is desired by the individual in question.

I took up a post Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham in September 2017. Before that, I held a post as Lecturer at the School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast, which I took up in March 2014.

Research Background

PhD and Postdoctoral research
I carried out my PhD research (2005-2008) at the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, supervised by Prof. Chris Oliver and Prof. Glyn Humphreys. My work focused on understanding temper outbursts in people with a genetic developmental disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome. For more information about this previous research click here. After my PhD I worked for just over two years at the Cerebra Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders, where I was involved in work aiming to better understand the difficulties faced by individuals with several different developmental disorders.

Marie Curie Fellowship
In January 2010 I was awarded an International Outgoing Marie Curie Fellowship by the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme. This fellowship supported my research for the three years between March 2011 and March 2014. During the first two years of the fellowship I worked with the Culture and Social Neuroscience Laboratory at the Department of Psychology, Peking University, China, and during the final year I returned to Birmingham. The focus of my work during this fellowship was on understanding how aspects of the environment – including someone’s immediate social surroundings and their broader cultural background – can impact on how they respond emotionally and how they control those emotions. This work has provided me with a strong basis for developing research aiming to increase understanding of how disorder may affect emotional processes and impact behaviour.

Current Research

PREDICTORS: Parent Resources for Decreasing the Incidence of Change Triggered Temper Outbursts
This research began with the work of Dr Leah Bull whose PhD I supervised alongside Prof. Chris Oliver. You can read more about Leah’s work in the previous research section. In January 2015 we will begin a project called PREDICTORS which stands for Parent Resource for Decreasing the Incidence of Change Triggered Temper Outbursts. The project was funded by the Bailey Thomas Charitable Foundation . We have developed a set of web-based resources to teach parents and caregivers of children who find changes to routines and plans very difficult to deal with and often show difficult behaviours such as temper outbursts follow these types of changes. The project allowed us to carry out an early stage pilot randomised controlled trial of these resources. The results have given us several important ideas about how to further develop the resources to better assist children with neurodevelopmental disorders and their families.

Flexible Scheduling
One important outcome from the PREDICTORS project is that it helped to provide support and ideas for a new early intervention approach. I have recently been awarded funding for this approach from the Medical Research Council in collaboration with Prof. Gaia Scerif from the University of Oxford and Dr Sarah Miller from Queen’s University Belfast. In the flexible scheduling project, we will develop and test the feasibility of a parent-led strategy aiming to decrease the development of disability linked to the resistance to change that can be shown by children with neurodevelopmental disorders.

TASTER: Training Attention Switching for Temper Episode Reduction
In November 2014 we began work on a project funded by the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research . My previous research showed that the impairment in attention switching that people with Prader-Willi syndrome can show seems to be linked to the difficulties with changes to routines and plans that people often experience and the temper outbursts that can follow these sorts of changes. The aim of the TASTER project is to develop a switching training game capable of having a positive effect on behaviour. We built a fully functioning prototype video game to train attention switching, tailored specifically for the needs and preferences of children with Prader-Willi syndrome. Following initial positive testing of this prototype, we won further support from the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research to support ongoing development of the game. Collaborators in this work include Prof. Annalu Waller who is director of the ACC research group at the University of Dundee, and Dr Nigel Robb, University College Dublin, who is currently an ASSISTID Marie Curie Research Fellow. In the ongoing work we are developing the TASTER game so that it has higher capability to adapt itself to individual’s ongoing play (so that it is more engaging and motivating to play) and so that it is in line with the preferences of a wider range of individuals with Prader-Willi syndrome. We will be recruiting for this project up until February 2018.

CAN MEASURE: Measuring Executive Abilities for a Sound Understanding of Real Executive Function
In this project, I aim to develop a valid tool for measuring executive functioning in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. Executive functions are the brain processes that play a critical role in the monitoring and regulation of thoughts and behaviours and are particularly important in novel and complex situations. With better measurement of executive functioning, ultimately I aim to better understand the associations between executive functions and clinically relevant behaviours in disordered populations so that this information may be used to develop effective intervention approaches. With important helpful input from Prof Chris Jarrold, Prof Gaia Scerif, Dr Sarah Beck and Prof Chris Oliver, at the Universities Bristol, Oxford and Birmingham, I developed a pilot battery of executive functioning tests that aims to be appropriate for children with neurodevelopmental disorders. I led the administration of this battery to 125 typically developing children and 12 children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Several researchers contributed to this pilot work, most notably Krupa Seth, Eleanor Callaghan and Pav Sohal. Following this pilot work, my current PhD student Róisín McKenna carried out an evidence synthesis study (a meta-analysis) of functional neuroimaging studies carried out with children using executive functioning tasks. These data, along with statistical modelling of children’s performance on the pilot battery have informed the development of an online testing tool that my team has now finished developing. This online tool was further piloted with around 50 children followed by large scale normative testing with a sample of more than 800 children from across Northern Ireland. Morgan McKenna and Katherine Grady as well as several researchers from my team played a pivotal role in collecting these data. We are currently examining these data and preparing associated publications. The battery is viewable online with a password that I can provide.

Associations between emotional control and behaviour in disordered populations
Building from the work I completed as part of my Marie Curie fellowship I have designed a way to examine people’s capacity for controlling their own negative emotions, which is appropriate for individuals with a developmental disorder. I am currently using this method to assess the relationship between people’s capacity for controlling their negative emotion and certain profiles of challenging behaviour that appear to have a strong emotional component – such as temper outbursts.