Our Youth

Let Them Speak: How Data-Based Research Helps Save Lives

By Teressa Martinelli

Over the past three years, I have been a student in Fontbonne Hall Academy’s Science Research Program which has opened incredible doors for me.

Martinelli

I was given the opportunity to conduct my own research, learn how to analyze data, write my own research paper, and gain recognition from the Regeneron Science Talent Search by earning both the Research Report Badge and the Student Initiative Badge.

My research has taken me on a three-year journey starting in my sophomore year, when I began familiarizing myself with scholarly articles.

Daunting at first, these complex articles paved the road toward my understanding of research and data. By junior year, I developed an interest in childrens’ early life and the factors that can influence their development.

While doing extensive research on this topic, I came across articles by Dr. Clancy Blair at New York University’s Neuroscience and Education Lab. I contacted him showing interest in his mentorship, and with a little luck, was offered an internship at his lab for the summer.

Access to the lab’s resources  became available to me. My research was given the chance to go in so many different directions.

I was able to narrow it down to stress, anxiety and depression during pregnancy in first-time parents. Although stress, anxiety and depression is so prevalent during pregnancy, most people are not aware of the potential risk factors associated with them.

The Fontbonne Hall Academy senior earned two badges with the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search for her well-written, college-level paper entitled “Increased Risk of Attentional Bias in First-Time Parents Exhibiting Symptoms of Stress, Anxiety and Depression During Pregnancy.”

These risks range from pre-term birth, low birth weight to effects later in the child’s life such as an increased risk of autism diagnosis or psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

The lab also introduced me to a massive database, nicknamed the “Mother of All Data.” After overcoming the initial rush of confusion, I began poking around the dataset and asking questions. Slowly, I began to crack the code.

I gained insight into how the participants’ scores on tasks were measured and interpreted.

One afternoon, I was asked if I would be interested in going on a home visit with an experimenter named Grace. On home visits, the parents and child are evaluated using various tasks, which are later coded and analyzed in one of the lab’s longitudinal studies.

I agreed and Grace and I arrived at the house to greet the parents and their 14-month-old daughter. I was in charge of filming and keeping track of the times for each task. The tasks not only assessed the child’s cognitive skills, but also evaluated parent-child interactions, such as how sensitive the parents were when playing with their child.

In one task, Grace instructed the child to point to the picture of a microwave, but she pointed to a toaster instead. Concerned, her mother asked, ‘Is it normal to get that question wrong? How are the other children in the study doing?’

Grace reassured her that everything was going as it should and the children weren’t expected to get a perfect score on any of the tasks. I felt a rush of sympathy toward the mom.

After weeks of deciphering data and statistics in the lab, I finally saw a first-time parent’s anxiety in real-life. The tasks were no longer data on a page, but carried real, emotional stakes.

One week later, I completed a survey evaluating all aspects of the visit, from the neighborhood to the disposition of the parents to the number of books in the house.

Witnessing a home visit opened my eyes to the significance of our results. Instead of seeing numbers, I saw people’s lives – the construction taking place in their house, the mom’s grimace when her daughter pointed to the toaster, the bag of cherries she gave me for the bus ride home. They weren’t facts and figures to be organized, they were people anxiously looking for answers. I was finally able to understand why things mattered.

A neighborhood could determine the family’s net income or impact the quality of education the child will receive. The disposition of the parents toward experimenters can provide insight into how patient they are with their kids. The number of books in the house can be correlated to the child’s future reading levels. The data came alive with meaning.

While writing my research paper, the pieces came together and allowed me to take a step back and see the big picture. I was no longer bogged down by abstract theories or complex data.

I realized what research was all about – helping people live better lives. My summer in the lab is one that I will never forget. I learned the value of determination and how sometimes the things that seem the most scary are the most rewarding in the end.

But I also learned that statistics are people, and good researchers never lose sight of that.


Martinelli is a senior at Fontbonne Hall Academy, Bay Ridge. 

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