Meet our new Bridging Fellows

Drs Lydia Brown and Kelly Trezise have commenced work as the School’s new Bridging Fellows. The Bridging Fellowship scheme supports researchers who have recently completed their PhDs for one year of intensive postdoctoral research in collaboration with an academic member of the School. We spoke to Lydia and Kelly about their work.


What was the focus of your PhD work?

My PhD explored self-compassion and attitudes to ageing as psychological resilience factors for midlife women transitioning through menopause.

What will you be doing during your Bridging Fellowship, and who will you be working with? Is the project the continuation of your past work or does it represent a new direction?

Broadly, I am passionate about healthy ageing, the mind-body connection and mindfulness/compassion based psychological interventions. During my PhD, under the supervision of Associate Professor Christina Bryant, I applied these themes to women’s experience of menopause. I am still interested in menopause, but I am also extending my focus to consider other aspects of health in the second half of life. For example, I am now recruiting for a feasibility study that considers a positive emotion training programme for older adult hospital outpatients. We have paired up with colleagues from Melbourne School of Engineering and Healthscope hospitals for this project, and we will be considering both psychological and physical health outcomes, including heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is an interesting bridge between physical and mental health, and it will be a focal point in my research this year.

A lot of your work has involved exploring the implications of 'self-compassion'. Can you explain the concept for us and why it is pertinent to the psychology of health? 

Self-compassion involves a healthy way of relating towards the self when facing difficulty. It involves treating yourself with kindness and compassion when you face one of life’s inevitable hiccoughs, rather than with harsh self-criticism. Not only does self-compassion help you to cope with physical symptoms such as menopausal hot flushes (a focus of my PhD), it is also linked to physiological indices such as low stress induced inflammation and healthy HRV. For this reason, self-compassion appears to be a powerful (and learnable) psychological skill that can improve quality of life.

You completed our combined MPsych/PhD program and you combine clinical practice with a research fellowship in your current career. What are some of the benefits and special challenges of combining the scientist and practitioner roles in this way?

I love the balance of research and clinical practice. Each aspect enriches the other. I think that working with clients forces me to question the broader relevance of my research. When sitting with clients I often think: What is relevant to their health and well-being? What matters? What works? These basic questions inspire my research interests. While integrating both research and clinical practice into my career is rewarding, sometimes it can feel like I am juggling two full-time jobs – because there is always more to do. I am learning to be patient, and to allow both sides of my career to grow slowly and naturally like a garden. After all, anything worthwhile takes time to develop.

Do you have a recent paper that you are especially proud of? Tell us what you did, what you found and why it matters.

Last year we published structural equation modelling paper that considered how self-compassion might contribute to positive attitudes to ageing. A great deal of research shows that feeling good about ageing can protect your health and longevity, but it is sometimes hard to feel authentically happy about growing old (especially in our youth obsessed culture). In this paper we show that self-compassion might be one means to cultivate a healthy relationship with ageing, which in turn may promote health.


What was the focus of your PhD work?

Broadly, my research examined how cognition and emotion interact over short time periods. The research characterized inter- and intra-individual patterns of working memory and anxiety relationships, and the implications of these relationships for mathematical problem solving. In addition to identifying these patterns, the research provided insights into the nature of mathematics anxiety, algebraic problem solving abilities.

What will you be doing during your Bridging Fellowship, and who will you be working with? Is the project the continuation of your past work or does it represent a new direction?

I will be extending from my past work. I will continue to examine cognition and anxiety interactions, but extend from problem solving to learning contexts. In addition, I am continuing to working on understanding hurdles in mathematics learning. I am working with Associate Professor Robert Reeve and Professor Robert Hester.

Having recently made the transition from a PhD student to a postdoctoral research fellow, what do you see as the main challenge confronting early career researchers and what advice would you give to commencing PhD students?

The ECR phase is quite different to the PhD. Stressors are more diverse, and coordination of multiple demands with varying time pressures/deadlines is difficult. I have found it particularly challenging to balance writing papers and grants with finding somewhat stable employment, while continuing to develop my current research and finding time to get data collected.

My advice to PhD students is to find ways to interact with and get to know the researchers in your field. This can be through presenting at conferences, visiting labs, joining an international project, or making use of academic social media, such as Twitter. There are things that often don’t come across in papers but are clear in informal conversations, like whether the researcher is good match with you, as well as their research perspectives and the future research directions. In addition, start to contribute to the academic community where you can, for example, helping to organize conferences, becoming the student representative for a research network, or joining the organizing committee for Graduate Researchers in Psychological Sciences (GRIPS).

Do you have a recent paper that you are especially proud of? Tell us what you did, what you found and why it matters.

A book chapter I wrote with Associate Professor Robert Reeve, titled “The Impact of Anxiety and Working Memory on Algebraic Reasoning”, has been recently published in the book Understanding Emotions in Mathematical Thinking and Learning. Leading researchers from psychology and education have contributed to the book, so it is great to have a chapter in it. The chapter integrates some of my previous work, to characterise different patterns of anxiety-working relationships in high school students; how anxiety and working memory influence each other iteratively over time; and the nature of stability and/or change in anxiety-working memory patterns and how they predict algebraic problem-solving abilities. The research offers theoretical insights into the nature of cognition-emotion relationships, and the implications for educators.