18 Oct 2017

CCS PhD student profile: Jacqueline Riddiford

Jacqueline Riddiford at the 2017 3MT heats
by Matt Jane

Jacqueline Riddiford is currently a Doctor of Psychology (Clinical Neuropsychology) candidate at Monash University. She is supervised by Dr Joanne Fielding, Associate Professor Peter Enticott and Dr Caroline Gurvich in the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre.

Jacqueline completed a Bachelor of Psychology (with Honours) at Monash University.

What is your research about?

My research is about looking at visual processing and social ability in adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). One of the key areas of research that has arisen in ASD has been to do with the mirror neuron system theory.

Neurons in this system fire when we perform an action, and when we observe someone else performing the same or similar action. It is because of this that this system is believed to provide us with an understanding of the intentions of other people, and therefore this has implications for social cognition. To date results have been inconclusive as to whether or not there is a “broken” mirror system in ASD, who have well known difficulties in social engagement. One thing that hasn’t been considered is the effects of visual processing differences in ASD. Individuals with ASD tend to not look at faces in quite the same way that someone without ASD would look at faces, and tend to have a preference for interacting with objects rather than other people. Given that the visual processing system is very much tied in with the mirror neuron system, my project is looking at whether that is a better explanation of the mirror neuron system deficits in ASD.

Have you always been interested in this area? What made you choose to do this for your PhD?

I’ve always been interested in developmental processes. When I was doing my undergraduate degree I had some experience working with a child who had autism in his own home based intervention program which was fascinating.

During my Hnours program I was looking at something completely different and one of my supervisors knew that I was interested into developmental research. She was speaking to a colleague of hers about perhaps doing an eye movement and social cognition study in ASD and my name came up. In reality, I just needed a project to do my initial doctoral degree with so I latched onto it because it was really the only one there, but it happened to fit me really well. So it was a little bit of random chance, but it really suited in the end.

Who is your supervisor and what’s your favourite thing about them?

I’ve had Caroline Gurvich as my supervisor for almost 6 years! It’s been amazing and it’s great to continue to learn from her. Her speciality is in eye movements and eye tracking and it’s been really beneficial to shift from one area in Honours, which was more about visual-perceptual processes in controls, to my current focus with a clinical sample.

Has your mentor changed at all throughout those six years?

No she hasn’t. She’s still very open. I’ve probably got a little bit more leeway nowadays, which has allowed me to take on other tasks as well in the lab. I’ve definitely had more opportunities to mentor other students which has been very beneficial. Although she has gone from being a secondary supervisor to the primary supervisor she still is a very caring and approachable mentor. I’ve been very lucky.

Is it helpful having other students in your lab also? Have you been able to impart any wisdom onto them?

It’s been invaluable. I think the best way to know that you’ve learnt something is to be able to teach it to somebody else. So in that respect it’s been incredibly beneficial and to know what students struggle with and to be able to use my own experience to try and help guide them has been fantastic.
 It’s amazing when you look back and you look at the stress and you look at their work and you’re like what are you talking about, you’re doing fine. So it has been good to be able to put that into perspective and know that what you did years ago was an amazing feat in itself.

Has there been any light-bulb moments, either personally or professionally throughout your PhD?

The best aspect of my research has been engaging with the community, especially with adults with autism, which is typically overlooked. People seem to focus on the childhood aspect of autism. Which is great, targeting early intervention, but we forget that this is a lifelong process and that these individuals do struggle with these things from early adulthood onwards. So, for me, that was kind of my lightbulb moment, in a sense that really more needs to be targeted towards adults. These are the ones who are out in the community, who are fending for themselves, who are becoming independent, yet still need a lot support.

You competed in the Three Minute Thesis competition this year. What were the difficulties and benefits of participating in this competition?

I think difficulties of the Three Minute Thesis competition was relaying the scope of the project. The project itself is quite large and I didn’t want to underplay it at all by focusing on one little bit. It was quite challenging writing a speech that highlighted the key issues in my work without downplaying the severities.

However, it was great to practis disseminating it to an audience who was largely unaware about ASD. I think addressing the crowd using lay language was invaluable experience because ultimately if you want the associated community to engage with what you are doing, you have to be able to communicate it in a clear and concise way.

What are your plans post PhD?

Maybe take a break! I started my undergrad in 2009 and I haven’t stopped since then. I would like to start working in some capacity, but I haven’t got anything in particular lined up. I wouldn’t mind sticking to research. I find that work amazing and invaluable and it’s more up my alley than the clinical work has been thus far.

Doing a postdoc overseas is something I have been toying with. I’m very much a homebody, but it would be good to get out of my comfort zone.

What advice do you have for others starting a PhD? 

Trust the process. I think one can become really side-tracked due to how overwhelming everything can be.  You’re contributing to science on a much grander scale which can be quite daunting. It can also feel really overwhelming when you look at what other people have done and just the scope of the research involved, but I think you just need to trust yourself and trust the process. You wouldn’t be there if you were not capable of it.

What do you like to do in your spare time? 

I like trying to keep fit. I umpire a lot of netball and I also play myself. However, I’ve been injured the last couple of years, so I’ve spent more time focusing on umpiring and coaching.
I am also a sci-fi nerd, so if I’ve ever got any boredom or free time at home I usually just chuck Star Trek on. I love it to bits.

What’s one thing learnt and continue to put in practice whilst you study?

One thing that I’ve noted is just to keep trusting my ability a bit more. I tend to leave things or delay submitting drafts or chapters, yet when I get them back it’s all good. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to make errors, but it’s all part of the scientific process.

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