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Interview with Dr. Daphne Maurer

📷 McMaster University

Journalist: Jeryn Anthonypillai

Jeryn: Hello, and welcome to SciSection. My name is Jeryn Anthonypillai, and I'm a journalist for SciSection radio show. We're here today with Dr. Daphne Maurer, a distinguished professor at McMaster University and a fellow of the American Association for the advancement of science. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Daphne Maurer: Pleased to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Jeryn: So to begin, how did you get your start with your research?

Dr. Daphne Maurer: Well, perhaps most interesting to your audience will be how I even got into the field of child development. It was my third major. I started off in political science, then switched to anthropology and only discovered this field I love so much because a prof when I was in my third year of university, invited me to come into his lab and help with this research. And then I knew that I wanted to be a researcher and I wanted to study child development. If you're going to understand how things unfold in development, you need to start at the beginning. So I looked for a Ph.D. supervisor for graduate work who studied infants and the one I found at the University of Pennsylvania who was great, studied the development of infants’ vision, that got me into my own research.

Jeryn: So what made you interested in researching infants specifically?

Dr. Daphne Maurer: Because I wanted to understand how we are transformed into adults, interacting with the environment in the way we do. And I thought it's so complicated. We'll never understand it unless you start at the beginning.

Dr. Daphne Maurer: The beginning is well actually fetal development, but for vision the beginning is at birth. So that's what I did. I researched what kind of vision is possible at birth. We studied babies seven minutes old, right into the delivery room to find out how the system starts out. We tracked visual development all the way up until it became as good as in adults, which is adolescents or beyond. So it's a very, very long developmental trajectory. And then we looked at the role of visual experience in driving those developments by looking at the special population of babies who are born with cataracts in their eyes. So they don't get to see at birth. They don't get to see until the cataracts are removed and they're given compensatory contact lenses. So we contrasted the development of babies with normal eyes and the development of babies who missed early visual experience because of cataracts. And then thereby learned what in normal development is happening from learning, from looking around the world from the visual experience.

Jeryn: So I've noticed that you've done a lot of research and work in that area of infants and you even co-authored the book, The World of the Newborn, which won the book award of the American Psychological Association. So what was your inspiration to write this book and write it from an infant's perspective?

Dr. Daphne Maurer: I knew the literature on infancy. My husband's a science writer. We thought it would be interesting to work on a project where we translated the work into the perspective of the infant and wrote it for a general audience. That book is written in lay language. There's no jargon it's for anybody who has some intellectual curiosity. We thought it would be easy. We thought we would just look at the review articles and every area of infant development and just translate them into the infant's perspective and light language. We discovered that in most areas, those review articles had not been written. And even though I knew something about all those areas, cause I was teaching, I didn't know enough to write the book. So it took us eight years because we essentially did enough research to probably have written 30 academic review articles. But instead, we wrote a book

Jeryn: And it's an amazing book and I would encourage everyone that's listening to go read it right now. So you have had a very accomplished career, winning many awards, and I'm sure being at your position right now did not happen easily. So have you ever faced any challenges along the way?

Dr. Daphne Maurer: Of course, there are challenges along the way. At many different levels, getting funding in order to do the research, that is always a challenge. Recruiting students, finding the right fit. Finding students who are going to be a good fit in the lab, whether we're talking about undergraduate students who just want to do two weeks of volunteer work or someone who wants to do an honours thesis or someone wants to come and do graduate work. So recruiting the right students for the lab, getting them interested in the lab cause good students have lots of choices. So it's a matter of advertising what we do and finding the students that fit very well. Research to my husband would be tedious. He says, I studied the left eyebrow. It's like washing dishes over and over and over again, you have to do the same thing. I don't mind it, but you have to establish a protocol and you have to follow with the same protocol all the time. You have to make sure that you're not biasing the results. So you don't know what you're finding until you're all finished. But the excitement of being able to do the research, being able to find out the answers to me is just so enticing. I've retired for eight years, but I'm still doing research and I'm still applying for grants. I'm still working with fewer students than before but I love it. My husband points out I'm now a volunteer. And I said, yeah so what?

Jeryn: Yeah, that's really great. And for our final question, what component of your research do you think more people should learn about?

Dr. Daphne Maurer: Oh my. Well, I'm gonna tell you about what my current passion is, I mean there are lots of answers to that question. My current passion is on retirement I learned that Ontario had stopped doing vision screening in schools in the seventies. Just about the time, I started out at McMaster and I said a good chunk of children enter school with visual problems that are completely correctable that will affect their learning to read. And nobody knows they have the problem. The parents don't know the teachers don't know. And I said I have to do something about that. So I teamed up with a chief of ophthalmology at the hospital for sick children. We shared the same concern. We did six years of research on what are the best tools available now, as opposed to in the seventies, how can we show the efficacy of the tools? What are the rollout problems? If you're trying to scale this across the whole province. So we went to 43 schools and 15 different communities up to Kirkland Lake up to Ottawa out to Sarnia, urban, rural, rich, poor, all kinds of communities to find out what the implementation's issues are, lobbied the government with our results. And they need to do this because I researched showed that 15 to 25% of children have a treatable eye problem nobody knows about. 25% in high need schools, more typically 15% in other schools. And we succeeded in getting the public health standards modifying. So that now vision screening has been reintroduced into the school for children and senior kindergarten. Of course, this got all got shut down by COVID, but a year and a half ago, that change was instituted and now I'm helping to facilitate it's implementation with the public health unit. The message I want people to know is young children can have eye problems. They are treatable. If they need to wear glasses, they should be encouraged to wear the glasses. The glasses are broken, they should be replaced because otherwise, we're going to have something like 10 to 15% of children with a handicap in schools. It's going to affect them for the rest of their lives because they won't easily learn to read. And that has a lifelong impact.

Jeryn: Yeah, I think that's very important. That's really amazing that you're head of the initiative. So that actually brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you again for joining me today and for our listeners. That's it for this week of SciSection, make sure to check us out on our podcasts available on global platforms for all our latest interviews.

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