Workshop on Schizophrenia & Related Disorders

Visitor of the Week: Abigail Wright

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Meet Abigail Wright of the University of Sussex (United Kingdom). Abigail is a PhD student in the Sussex Psychosis Research Interest Group (SPRiG) and is in the Banbury Center participating in her first CSHL course: Workshop on Schizophrenia & Related Disorders.  

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
My research focuses on understanding factors that predict poor functioning in First Episode Psychosis (FEP). It has long been known that cognitive impairments and symptoms of psychosis (particularly negative symptoms) play a role in functioning. However, these factors only account for a small amount of variance, and therefore a large number of variance in functioning is still unexplained. From this, I have begun to understand the role of metacognition (i.e., the way you think about yourself, your abilities and your life) and how it could be used to understand the unexplained variance in functioning in FEP. 

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research? 
Before starting my main research project, I collaborated with a group of individuals with psychosis to further understand their experience and identify aspects in their life which they found most challenging and, therefore, most in need of more research. It was apparent that whilst symptoms can be extremely distressing for people, many reported difficulties (or dissonance) in leading a fulfilling and meaningful life. Given the onset of psychosis is typically during early adulthood, a time in which people are most likely to be first starting their careers, the experience of psychosis had an impact on individuals going back to work or school.

For my research, it was important to understand what is influencing these difficulties in functioning so we are then able to develop novel interventions to improve daily functioning in psychosis. Also, for the individuals who have experienced psychosis, we know it can be a distressing and very disruptive experience on their lives. I keep this knowledge at the forefront of my mind whilst conducting my research to ensure it is meaningful and important to make a change for people’s lives.

How did your scientific journey begin? 
Over a high school summer holiday, I worked in a psychiatric hospital and was struck by the profound difficulties these individuals faced. Then during college, I volunteered at a center aimed to provide the space and facilities for individuals with severe mental health difficulties to build skills to enable them to go back into the workforce e.g., cooking, gardening, and serving customers. Following conversations with users of the service, I became intrigued in the experience of psychosis particularly their views about themselves and their lives, which appeared to be directly influencing their ability, confidence, and motivation to work. From this, I wanted to further understand ‘why’ people continued to experience difficulties, in hopes to help more people in the future. I was also encouraged by my undergraduate supervisor, Professor Vincent Connelly, to apply for a PhD in psychosis and I have always been grateful for his influence on my academic career.
My supervisors at University of Sussex, Dr. Kathy Greenwood and Professor David Fowler have been fantastic to work with during my PhD research, providing space for exciting conversations about psychosis, and helping me refine my interests and skills whilst ensuring we kept the individuals with psychosis at the forefront of our research. 

And recently, I have been inspired to learn more about the role of metacognition in psychosis from research of Professor Paul Lysaker, and learning how to improve outcomes in employment and education in Severe Mental Illness (SMI) from Professor Kim Mueser and Professor Susan McGurk. I was honored to have the opportunity to work with all three academics this summer and am excited to implement their approaches within my research.
Was there something specific about the Workshop on Schizophrenia & Related Disorders that drew you to apply?
Firstly, I was drawn to the variety of fantastic speakers and organizers of the workshop. I also applied as it would be particularly beneficial to generate new ideas with regard to analyzing the current data using new methods learnt from the course. 

In addition, this workshop allowed me to meet other early-career researchers from around the world, engage with different perspectives within schizophrenia research, and develop potential collaborations. Such future collaborations would be beneficial to the course of my academic career. 

What and/or how will you apply what you've learned from the workshop to your work? 
It has been quite helpful to learn the most up-to-date techniques and approaches to psychosis research. As I am the first student from University of Sussex to attend this workshop, I agreed to deliver a seminar sharing the knowledge learnt here with our group at University of Sussex so others will benefit from and learn the new techniques and methodologies explored within this workshop. Also, I am looking forward to developing new research questions to apply these approaches to the range of datasets of our lab group - particularly within FEP.

What is your key takeaway from the workshop?
The key takeaway, for me, has been the importance of finding your own niche and collaborating with others in the field to produce high-quality research. I have been struck by the friendly academic community and the importance of collaboration because despite working in various areas of psychosis, many of the speakers work collaboratively with the organizers of the workshop. 
If someone curious in attending this workshop asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would encourage any early-career researcher to attend Workshop on Schizophrenia & Related Disorders. Jeremy Hall, Anissa Abi-Dargham, and Akira Sawa have done a fantastic job of developing a schedule packed with world-renown academics in the field. The talks have all been engaging and novel; some even with unpublished data presented so participants receive, firsthand, the most up-to-date research in the area. Alongside the presentations, I have enjoyed the opportunity to engage with the speakers in relaxed settings and gain an expert perspective on your research.  

I have also met many wonderful early-career researchers in the area of psychosis who are equally encouraging and inspiring. As it is a stay-in course, it is great to have spent time with different researchers, hear about the research projects across the world, and to build potential future collaborations. 

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The Banbury campus is a beautiful place and the scenery is magnificent. It is very quiet so it’s an ideal place to learn and ponder. A few of the other attendees and I started a morning running group which has been a great way to see the area beyond the campus and prepare us for the long and exciting day of talks. 

Abigail received funding from the University of Sussex, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). On behalf of Abigail, thank you to the University of Sussex and ESRC for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Abigail for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.