Setting up a large new research project like Growing Up Together in Society (or GUTS) is pretty much like embarking on an expedition into uncharted territory, is what I discovered. In this blog, I will reveal how I have experienced this adventure so far, from the spark of curiosity that started it all until the next step we are about to undertake: starting our data collection journey.

 

  1. The Spark of Curiosity

One of the most exciting things about doing research is the moment when you get a new idea. You hear or read new information, couple it with your existing knowledge, and boom – there it is. A spark that ignites your curiosity. Funnily enough, this always seems to happen to me when I take a step back from my regular workdays filled with meetings and take some time to explore nature, attend an interesting talk, or speak with a fellow researcher. It feels like a fire from that point onwards: it takes me over completely and propels me into action. How can I sharpen this question? What are the best methods to answer this question? Can I set up a research project to get all of this going?

For GUTS, the process was a bit different for me, as I got involved when the 19 principal investigators had already drafted a research proposal and were awarded funding to start the project. Nonetheless, when they told me about their plans, I could feel it again: the spark, a kind of warmth and enthusiasm you feel inside when you hear a really good idea. In this case, I was particularly inspired by the idea that self-regulation – the ability to control one’s behavior – in adolescents is not only influenced by when a certain rewarding outcome takes place but also by who is rewarded by those outcomes. Researchers have traditionally studied self-regulation using tasks in which adolescents choose between a small reward now and a larger reward later – a bit like choosing between watching an immediately rewarding Netflix show now or studying for an exam that takes place later in time. In GUTS, we not only study how decisions are influenced by the timing of the rewarding outcome but also how it is integrated into one’s social context: is the reward for oneself, a friend, or an unfamiliar other? This is important because it gives us a better understanding of how self-regulation works in adolescents’ highly social daily lives.

  1. Drafting a Map: Working on the Study Design with Our Crew

Once the questions are defined, it’s time to draft a map of how we will get to the answers. In other words, we want to outline the study design, including the methodology, variables to be studied, and analysis plans. We have been working on the details of this map in the last year. The larger outline was already in place. For example, in the subproject that I’m working on, we will study the optimal conditions for growing up in 600 adolescents, using both behavioral measures, questionnaires, and neuroimaging methods. The design period has been a particularly interesting and informative time for me, as this was my first project in which we tried to do so with a very large team of over 25 researchers. Working together in such a large team has advantages: there is the diversity of ideas, skill sets, and working methods, which brought measurement instruments and tools to my attention that I would have never come up with myself. It is also very nice to distribute the workload among team members and to build upon their expertise.

There are also challenges. For example, I had not considered before how much decision-making slows down when you consider input from a large group of people. Compared to my PhD project, in which I worked in a smaller team, there is also some role ambiguity. In my PhD project, I knew that I was responsible for most of the project, spurring me into action. As a team grows, responsibilities may become less defined or more difficult to communicate. Finally, it can also be a challenge when working with multiple universities to align communication and data management channels, as different individuals use different tools and resources.

This process has been incredibly educational for me, as I have learned a lot about ways in which the strengths of the team can be used, while challenges can be overcome. For example, working in such a large team requires proactive management, team building to improve group cohesion and a sense of responsibility and belonging, and a supportive leadership approach. I have been very lucky to grow a lot as a person and as a researcher from this process, particularly by learning from the other researchers on the project who have modeled effective ways in which to collaborate. I am very curious to see how the collaboration works out during the consecutive parts of the project.

  1. Navigating Ethical Considerations

Before we can set sail and start our data collection journey, it is important to consider important ethical aspects of the study. For GUTS, we did this by applying for ethical approval from the Medical Ethical Committee of the Erasmus Medical Centre. To this end, we considered what is needed to ensure the rights and well-being of participants and provided detailed documentation of the study’s procedures, risks, and benefits. Given the magnitude of the GUTS project, the entire process of obtaining ethical approval for the subproject I am working on has already taken several months. It has been a valuable experience to work out ethical aspects of our project I had no prior experience with, such as coupling our datasets to large, existing datasets, and balancing our curiosity – and tendency to measure a lot of things – with participants’ well-being – which is not necessarily improved by filling out endless sets of questionnaires. It has also been a nice exercise to consider everything we as researchers have learned from prior research projects regarding participants’ ‘research journey’, from recruitment to tracking progress, and from time investment and how we reward their participation, and to incorporate it into GUTS. We hope to get ethical approval soon so that we can start with actual data collection soon – one step closer to answering the questions that started it all!

  1. Data Collection Odyssey

In the upcoming months, we will focus on data collection. This is a real team effort, which we will undertake with not only the GUTS core team but also with over 15 students who will assist GUTS as part of their research internships and thesis work. Collecting multiple types of data on 600 adolescents is obviously a massive undertaking, but I hope that the entire team will also experience it the way I experienced data collection in my PhD project: as a lot of fun! Meeting the participants gives a new dimension and new perspectives on the data, as they often provide feedback on measurement instruments and procedures. Moreover, spending time with your fellow researchers during data collection has in my experience resulted in lifelong collaborations and sometimes even friendships. But perhaps most importantly, in time, we expect our ‘Expedition GUTS’ to contribute to new knowledge about optimal ways in which adolescents can grow up, including the role of self-regulation in this process. And, given the cyclic nature of doing research, mapping this formerly uncharted territory will not mark the end but a new beginning. A beginning of new sparks of curiosity, fresh research questions, and a new generation of researchers who will build on our work, collectively moving science forward.

 

Photo by Joshua Woroniecki on Unsplash.

As children get older, they face a variety of social challenges that can have a substantial impact on their development into resilient adults. Some move through these problems effortlessly, developing adaptive traits, while others struggle with problems that may have a long-term impact on their mental health.

Consider the transfer from one school to another, this can be relatively easy for children who have no difficulty developing relationships but can be substantially more stressful for those who struggle with social interactions. Furthermore, there is variation in how these situations affect children. While rejection at a new school may cause more negative feelings, it can also be that these feelings fade more quickly for others. The question that arises is: how do these self-regulatory traits develop during childhood and when do the differences arise?

Self-regulation in the brain

To understand self-regulation, we can conduct experiments to see how the brain reacts to socially stressful situations like rejection, and especially how children moderate their reactions to these situations. The Social Network Aggression Task is an experiment designed for this issue. In this experiment, people are given positive or negative feedback, followed by being instructed to let the person who gave them the feedback listen to a noise with the freedom to determine the noise’s intensity. Intriguingly, research reveals that children who respond more strongly to negative feedback, evidenced by louder noise blasts, exhibit visible differences in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a brain region dedicated to self-control). Aside from having distinct aggressive responses, it is also clear that there is a different reaction over time during development. Middle childhood appears to be a key phase for demonstrating self-regulation abilities.

This does however not provide us with a comprehensive picture of who these children are, nor does it indicate whether this is simply applicable during rejection or whether it is a trait-specific effect on the children. That is ultimately what we hope to learn. Why do children exhibit such a wide range of self-regulation responses in our daily social interactions?

Capturing patterns throughout the day

Therefore, as part of my GUTS PhD project, we want to get a broader understanding of self-regulation. That is, we wish to quantify social interaction in everyday life. This is possible thanks to a relatively new method becoming increasingly popular in large-scale research: experience sampling. How are we going to accomplish this? We live in an online world, and while using a smartphone rarely is viewed positively, it may be quite beneficial in the context of this study. Participants are instructed to complete quick questionnaires on their phones throughout the day. This can range from questions about feelings to social interactions. We can then identify patterns of daily social experiences because it is questioned repeatedly throughout the day!

Ultimately, the GUTS consortium hopes to learn how children grow up in an increasingly complex society. In this study, we hope to learn how children cope with stressful situations like rejection, as well as minor but significant events like social pressure, by disentangling momentary experiences. Later, we will also include the brain in our research to see if the neural differences in activity that are discovered during experiments like the Social Network Aggression Task, can be linked to person-specific patterns of self-regulation in everyday life as well.

 

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash.