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Profile of Maureen Lovett

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Dr. Maureen Lovett

Dr. Maureen Lovett, PhD, C.Psych

  • Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Director, Learning Disabilities Research Program
  • Professor of Paediatrics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? /Where did you study?
I was born in Montreal but spent most of my childhood and adolescence in Toronto. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Toronto and then I went on to do my Masters and PhD in psychology at McGill University. I returned to Toronto to do a post-doctoral fellowship in neuropsychology at SickKids. From that post-doc, I was hired to start a new clinical research program here at SickKids in the Division of Neurology. It is called the Learning Disabilities Research Program. Apart from a one year sabbatical at the University of California at Irvine, I have spent my entire career at SickKids.

2. What are you researching right now?
Most of my research efforts are devoted to treatment studies of children and adolescents with significant reading disabilities. Many of these young people would meet criteria for a diagnosis of ‘developmental dyslexia’. In our research, we seek to identify the core learning problems that make it difficult for so many children to learn to read and to develop high-level literacy skills. We develop approaches to address these learning problems, and then, in randomized controlled trials, we evaluate different approaches and different combinations of approaches to remediating dyslexia. In addition, we are interested in so-called “treatment resisters”. We want to better understand individual differences in treatment response with an ultimate goal of being able to match interventions to individual cognitive, language, and motivational profiles to optimize reading growth and outcomes of our children and adolescents.

Another area of our research involves knowledge translation. We have implemented some of our approaches in community classrooms. If an approach produces positive results in our lab classrooms, we evaluate how well this approach can be translated from lab to community classrooms, and how easy it is to teach educators to use it effectively with struggling learners. Currently we are evaluating the efficacy of programs for struggling readers in the elementary grades, in middle school (Grades 6-8), and in high school, assessing response to remediation on different dimensions of reading skill. Reading is a complex cognitive set of processes and to evaluate outcomes we examine a child’s ability to identify individual words (decoding and word identification), to understand and elaborate upon the meaning of a text (reading comprehension), and the fluency or ease of the reading process.

Finally, we are collaborating with other scientists to better understand the neurobiological bases of these learning disabilities. We are working with geneticists to better understand the genetic basis of reading ability and reading disability. We have just undertaken a new collaboration with a group of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to study the neurocognitive markers of learning and treatment response in children with reading disabilities.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I think I would have a hard time settling on just one. Four very successful scientists leap to mind.

The first is Albert Einstein whom I admire greatly for his passion and his persistence in trying to understand the universe in new terms. This is despite the fact that by all accounts he had a fairly unsuccessful school career and was said to have had a learning disability in childhood. Yet, he had a profound impact on how we understand our universe.

The second, also from a field very different from my own, is Marie Curie. As I understand it, she is the only person to have won the Nobel Prize in two different fields of science, one with her husband for her work on radioactivity in physics, and the second for her work in chemistry. She is a special favourite of mine for two reasons: She was an outstanding role model for women in science at a time when very few women were scientists, and she successfully combined a career in science with a family life. In fact, her elder daughter and her son-in-law went on to win a Nobel Prize in science.

Closer to home, in terms of my own research program in Neuroscience and Mental Health, I would name Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York. He is now 80 years old. He trained as a psychiatrist but was obsessed and fascinated with the question of what happens to the brain at the level of single neurons when an organism learns and when memories are formed. He won the 2000 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with some collaborators.

Finally, I will mention Brenda Milner, a neuropsychologist at McGill University, who is 91 years of age and still active in research. Eric Kandel has called Brenda Milner the mother of cognitive neuroscience. By combining research in neurology and research in cognitive psychology, she pioneered a new scientific discipline. She studied cognition and memory in patients with brain damage, and through the study of atypical learning and memory in atypical brain substrates she cast a new perspective on brain-behavior relationships. I had the privilege of hearing her lecture while I was a graduate student at McGill.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
That is a very difficult question because science is so vast in its reach and there are so many different areas of science. I guess I would have to say Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Through their work, they established the basis of modern gene technology and also provided a basis for understanding the inheritance of a variety of conditions and illnesses.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
That’s easy – my family. I am the mother of three wonderful sons. Two of them are now in their early twenties and the youngest is 18. I love spending time with them. They are all very different in personality, interests and perspective. Now that our youngest is 18 and less of our time is consumed by child rearing, my husband and I are rediscovering some of the simple joys of life like bike riding, going out to dinner with friends and going to movies together. We both enjoy music and love musical theatre. Our favourites include some of the most popular musicals like Mama Mia, Jersey Boys, Chicago, and, West Side Story.

6. Why science?
I have always been drawn to the larger questions. At the same time, I also trained as a clinical child psychologist but was curious to ask questions beyond the individual case about a range of childhood conditions, what constitutes effective treatment, how one looks at changes in development, how one measures outcomes, and the etiology of different conditions. Science is a wonderful career in that you get to ask lots of questions and you get to try and develop good methodology and experimental design to seek answers to your questions. The results at the end of any given experiment partially answer your questions, but typically raise a whole slew of new questions. If you are fortunate enough to work in science, you can keep asking new generations of more refined questions. It’s a job where you never know enough, and you’re always learning. No day is exactly like any other.

7. Why SickKids?
I am drawn to work at SickKids because of the quality of people you find here. It’s a very high energy environment. Clinical care, research, and education are all pursued at full force. SickKids is always striving for excellence, to find new ways to improve and new ways to implement new ideas and translate new findings into practice. As someone who is interested in clinical phenomena, in what happens to kids and improving the quality of life for children and youth around the world, SickKids is an excellent environment in which to pursue research.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
My research is really focused on treatment and intervention for struggling learners, particularly in the area of literacy learning. We have had very good results in pursuing research-based interventions with some very impaired struggling readers. As of yet, however, there is an unanswered question about whether or not there is a limit to the amount of improvement that you can attain in higher-order literacy functions (e.g., fluency or text comprehension) or if you can ever truly ‘close the gap’ in achievement between children who struggle and those who learn easily and without any struggle.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am reading a couple of books right now. One is a book called Nothing Was the Same by Kay Redfield Jamison, an amazing and eloquent psychologist who has written probably my favourite book which is called An Unquiet Mind, a moving account of her work in and her struggle with bi-polar disorder. Nothing was the Same is a memoir of her life with her husband and of her grief and loss following his death. I like to read anything she writes because I find her writing eloquent, powerful, and very moving.

Another book I’m reading is a book called An Imperfect Offering; it was given to me by one of my sons. Orbinski is a past president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). The book is a series of stories reflecting on some of his experiences doing humanitarian work in some of the most desolate parts of the world. The stories also reflect on the whole political landscape of humanitarian work in the 21st century.

In addition, I usually have one or two murder mystery books going on the side. I also have hundreds of books at home that I have purchased and have not yet read. When I retire someday, I will have ample reading material.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
My advice would be that passion, persistence and humility are essential ingredients to a career in science. Passion, because it is a job that is highly demanding and it is only worthwhile if you are pursuing ideas and interests and work that you value highly. Persistence is necessary because science is a long-term proposition and it does not produce quick results within a week or a month or even a year. You need persistence so that you can stick with long-term goals and so you can face the inevitable hurdles and failed experiments that will occur along the way. You need humility because you always need to be ready to learn from your mistakes and acknowledge all that you do not know.

August 2010

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