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Depression researcher focuses on babies

Whether cleaning code, writing papers or running tests, Claire Foster spends her days at Binghamton University’s Mood Disorder Institute, trying to understand the link between maternal depression and infants’ emotional behavior.

Parents’ behavior is one factor in a long list of underlying mechanisms that can affect childhood development, but little is known about the way these behaviors influence mother-infant attention. This link has become a focus of Foster’s research.

“One theorized mechanism through which depression develops and is maintained is through attention bias — how people pay attention to and disengage from certain emotional information such as facial expressions,” Foster says. “We see attention bias in adults with depression. We see it in adolescents and children, but we know less about infants.”

The results from the studies conducted so far seem to show that depression is too complex to rely only on attention bias, since outcomes vary greatly family to family. Foster says other mechanisms beyond attention bias, including environment and genetics, may also play a part in conferring risk factors.

Since the fall of 2017, when Foster joined the Mood Disorder Institute after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Cornell University, understanding infants’ needs has been key to her research. As a second-year graduate student studying clinical psychology, she has written several papers on the subject and worked with a number of families and pediatrician offices within the lab.

Brandon Gibb, a professor of psychology at Binghamton University and the director of clinical training for the Mood Disorder Institute, says Foster is a smart and motivated part of the team, working toward a common goal: reducing the risk for depression, however it may present itself.

“She’s just a really warm, caring and nice person. And it makes her an even better team member,” Gibb says. “I think one thing [about Claire] is the sheer joy she has when she starts talking about doing infant research. One, because I think she enjoys it so much, but also because she recognizes how important it is.”

Foster recently received a 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will effectively fund the next three years of her schooling and proposed study, as well as expand her professional outreach and opportunities.

Since its founding in 1951, the competitive fellowship has supported more than 50,000 STEM students. Foster is the latest of three students and a former lab manager at the Mood Disorder Institute to be awarded the fellowship.

The relationships and factors that influence depression and attention bias in children are what Foster hopes to learn more about with her research in the upcoming years. Since she first became interested in clinical psychology, Foster has been driven to help people through her studies. This need led her to volunteer in Romania after learning about the treatment of institutionalized orphans. It also informed her work at the Yale Child Study Center, where she studied autism, and at the Cornell University B.A.B.Y (Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years) Lab, where she studied as an undergraduate.

“I think the most important thing was the implications for families, how this information can impact people’s lives. Because I feel there is sometimes a disconnect between research and what families get in treatment,” Foster says. “If I can help improve our understanding of how these things develop, then we can better understand how to treat them.”

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