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Predicting Resilience Before Birth: Ph.D. Student Patricia Pehme Secures a Fulbright for her Timely Research

Ph.D. student Patricia Pehme (Photo courtesy of Pehme)

Graduate Center Ph.D. student Patricia Pehme (Psychology) grew up in Poland in the seaport city of Gdynia, and now her studies are taking her back to her home country. Pehme has been awarded a 2020–2021 Fulbright U.S. Student Program Research Award to study the origins of mother-child co-regulation at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

Pehme’s work will bring together data from the Stress in Pregnancy Lab where she currently conducts research with her adviser, Professor Yoko Nomura (GC/Queens, Psychology) with the analysis expertise of Dr. Przemyslaw Tomalski, a member of the Baby Lab at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Infants learn to calm themselves from their caregivers, often relying on their mother’s tone of voice or gaze to soothe them. Later, this turns into co-regulation, where both mother and child have an effect on each other. Eventually the child learns to regulate their emotional responses independently. Strong self-regulation is associated with better academic achievement, lower criminal activity, and a lower rate of substance use.

Pehme will examine whether oxytocin — a hormone linked to both bonding and stress — and expression of the oxytocin gene in the placenta can predict the mother and child’s co-regulation. Oxytocin plays a large role in the mother-infant relationship, and the placenta is key in connecting the mother’s and baby’s brains during pregnancy.

If mother-child co-regulation can be biologically predicted, this could provide a way to screen children for risk of social and emotional difficulties, Pehme said, opening a window for early intervention.

Her research will also explore emotional well-being in the face of difficult global events.

“Patricia’s work is strong from a scientific perspective and meaningful from a clinical standpoint,” Nomura said. “Given the mounting significance of stress-inducing events like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic and the profound ripple effects they have on our communities, investigating the early origin of resilience factors is essential to dealing with these events.”

For the Polish native, the award provides more than a research opportunity.

“Alongside my research I will immerse myself in Polish history, language, science and arts through academic and community opportunities,” Pehme said. “Additionally, I would like to explore Polish neuropsychological 
assessment. My overarching goal is to build international alliances to further cultural understanding, and use this exchange of ideas to advance our understanding of human development.”
 

Submitted on: APR 14, 2020

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