Natasha is a Clinical Psychology PhD student in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work. Her PhD research uses epigenetics (biological mechanisms that modify gene expression without modifying the genetic code) to explore how kinds of childhood stress affect mental health. She specifically investigates whether socioeconomic position and young adult mental health outcomes are linked by changes known as DNA methylation, which work like tags on our DNA to tell a gene whether it should be expressed or not. As a Fulbright Future Scholar, Natasha will be headed to Boston to work with researchers in the Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Her research will investigate sensitive periods in epigenetic development as part of a larger study and also have the opportunity to participate in an innovative study investigating the use of baby teeth as epigenetic biomarkers for early life.
Congratulations Natasha, please share with us what this means for you:
I was drawn to the Fulbright Scholarship both because of the opportunities offered by research groups in the USA and by my sense of adventure. Whilst there are epigenetic research groups and labs in Australia, they often focus on animal studies or specific physical conditions (e.g. cancer). Even within my Lab (the Behavioural Genomic and Environmental Mechanisms Lab), my research is niche as it draws on theories and research across a number of different fields, including public health, policy, psychology, and epigenetics. This means that at the local level it can be challenging to find opportunities to collaborate, present, or train in my specific research. In terms of the research there are a number of labs and groups in the USA that focus on my niche area of epigenetic research, specifically investigating the association between childhood stressors, epigenetic changes, and mental health outcomes. From a more personal side, I’ve got the attitude of “apply for it, and see how you can fit it in later”. I saw this as a chance to experience another adventure as part of my PhD; living in another country, meeting new people, and learning from world-class adventures. In terms of what the Fulbright means to me, it has been incredibly validating; both personally and in terms of my research. As all postgrads know, you spend a lot of time in your bubble and sometimes the imposter syndrome hits really hard. Receiving this award showed me that other people believe that my research is meaningful and applicable to wider than just my thesis. However, for me the Fulbright is about more than just the research. I see this as an opportunity to grow personally, to put myself outside of my comfort zone and continue my love of life-long learning, both inside and outside of the classroom.