Psychology: Carra Simpson

With the help of the Australian Psychological Society (APS) Prize, Carra Simpson hopes to teach students to cultivate their own passions, even if they, like herself, do not end up following the most traditional pathway towards their future careers.

Carra’s Mum Aven was the first person in her family to go to University, and now Carra is following suit by being the first to pursue a PhD.

Leaving her family in Canberra to study at the University of Melbourne, Carra sought the breadth that the Bachelor of Arts offers.

“Throughout my undergraduate studies I explored psychology, politics and languages, and in my second year I recognised that the common element of all these threads was my passion for making a real difference in people’s lives.”

This insight led to a very personal shift in focus, with Carra choosing Psychology as her major and commencing an internship with Dr Julian Simmons and the Affective Development and Psychopathology Team (ADAPT) laboratory within the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences.

“In 2013, it became more apparent that my friends, family members, and myself noticed connections between diet, digestion and changes in our mood. This launched me into wanting to more objectively explore the role of the gut microbiome, the community of microbial organisms throughout the gastrointestinal tract, and its relationship with our behaviour, stress-levels and physiological functioning.”

Carra conveyed her interest in the gut/brain axis to Dr Julian Simmons, who agreed that this area of research was gaining traction.

“Then the boom in gut/brain research happened and it was almost like validation for people who’ve suspected that there is a link between mood and gut health.”

Not having a biological research background, at first Carra wasn’t entirely confident to leap into her chosen field of study, but thankfully the uncertainty did not last long. With the support of Dr Simmons, Dr Orli Schwartz, and the team, she commenced her Honours research into the relationship between hormones, inflammation, bacteria and adolescent mental health.

“Instead of worrying about all the microbiology there was to learn, I reassured myself that I had a strength in approaching this research from a non-traditional direction. My perspective allowed me to humanise the biology more: I am always thinking about how this research translates to human behaviour and improving quality of life.”

This work culminated in Carra being awarded the Dux of her Honours course.

“I flourished throughout my Honours course because I truly enjoyed the research focus and I cultivated a belief in my own abilities. I didn’t follow a conventional path, but I didn’t want to let self-doubt didn’t get in the way of pursuing my new-found interest.”

As Dux, Carra received the APS Prize awarded for excellence in psychology.

“I am so grateful to APS for supporting students like myself through this prize. I am excited to be going to Sydney for the APS Congress 2018 to present my Honours research. This opportunity has been important for me, as it has not only provided a platform to share my research, but it has also given me the confidence to develop my own novel contributions.

Awards like this make such a difference to students’ lives and provide much-needed recognition outside of the University context.”

Carra is now working on her PhD as part of the ‘Bugs and Brains: The Gut and Mental Health Study’. This is the first project worldwide to compare the human bacterial and physiological profiles of healthy adults, adults with depression &/or anxiety disorders, adults with IBS, and adults with comorbid depression &/or anxiety and IBS.

For Carra, the possibilities are endless. But she has found a real desire to use the knowledge gained from her career pathway to teach others and is committed to bettering education outcomes for all.

“I would love to pursue academia and research as a career, however, at the moment my foremost love has been for teaching.”

“Having outstanding and dedicated lecturers and tutors throughout my time at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences instilled me with the confidence to follow an unconventional pathway. By harnessing student’s enthusiasm and by prioritising engaging learning, I also hope to be able to inspire the same belief in my students. After all, today’s students are the ones who are going to produce the research of the future.”

Keep up to date with Carra’s research by following her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.