Research on childhood neglect, abuse earns Psychology PhD student national Vanier Scholarship

People have always been comfortable opening up to Jennifer Roters (MA ’19).

From a young age, she became known for offering a listening ear, and was the person friends and family would turn to when they needed support.

When it came time to choose a career, psychology seemed a natural fit.

“Human beings are like a puzzle,” says Roters, who is now studying at the PhD level at Brock under the supervision of Professor Angela Book. “Understanding human behaviour is like putting the puzzle together, one piece at a time.”

Roters has been awarded one of the most prestigious prizes a Psychology student can receive: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. She was recognized for her research on childhood neglect and abuse, and the affect they can have on attachment and personality outcomes.

The $50,000 scholarship is designed to attract and retain world-class doctoral students by supporting those who demonstrate both leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and health-related fields.

“Winning this award literally means the world to me,” Roters says, adding she believes it’s going to “help a lot of people” by supporting her research. “I’m trying to make the world a better place for everyone.”

Roters has had an interesting road to the PhD program, with two master’s degrees and some full-time employment guiding her along the way.

“After I did my undergraduate degree in Psychology, I thought I wanted to be a sports psychologist and went to a university in the United States for my first graduate degree, specializing in that field,” Roters says.

There, she completed a placement with sex offenders with intellectual disabilities who were attending court-mandated therapy. Roters became interested in working with this population and learning how the interventions she could provide could help crimes like these from happening in the future.

When she graduated from the program, she moved back home to Ontario and began a job at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, about three hours north of St. Catharines on the southern shores of Georgian Bay.

Roters worked in the provincial forensic unit, where she provided forensic assessments and treatment for patients admitted from the courts, correctional facilities and other psychiatric hospitals.

“I worked with many patients diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) or who had higher psychopathic traits,” she says. “One of the only evidence-based treatments for individuals with BPD is called dialectical behavioural therapy, which uses strategies like mindfulness to help people become aware of their emotions, thoughts and behaviours.

She noticed a lot of overlap in the personality traits of the individuals diagnosed with BPD and those with higher psychopathic traits, but knew there was not much research available on this overlap.

“I wondered if mindfulness interventions could also help people with psychopathic traits,” she says. “At that point, I knew I wanted to explore a PhD in this field.”

Roters knew she wanted to study at Brock under the direction of Book, who she had crossed paths with at Waypoint, where Book had professional ties.

Roters began at Brock in the Master of Arts (MA) program in Psychology to build the research background necessary to successfully undertake a PhD. While in the MA program, she was awarded a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship – Master’s for the 2017-18 academic year.

In 2019, she began the PhD program.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting the world, Roters had to slightly alter her program of study, as collecting human data for her initial study was no longer a possibility. She was able to use a pre-collected data set to explore her theories using children instead of criminals.

“Using data from children allows us to understand if identifying these traits, and implementing these interventions at a young age, could potentially prevent people from a life of crime,” Roters says.

As Roters works towards completing her PhD, she looks forward to marrying her research with her clinical work.

“My research is very applied and can’t be done in a vacuum,” she says. “I make interventions based off humans for humans. I need to keep working with people to be able to do what I do. I hope that continuing to do research will help the interventions I study to be widely applied and help many people.”

Roters was overwhelmed to receive the prestigious Vanier Scholarship.

“When I found out I was chosen, I ugly cried,” she says with a laugh. “It was very overwhelming, and it came at a very good time.

“I left a full-time, permanent job to go back to school and then a global pandemic hit. My husband and I were living with a very tight belt.”

Book says working with Roters throughout her graduate career has been an “absolute pleasure.”

“Jen is an excellent student and researcher. I love that her research has applications in the real world, and it is clear that she is passionate about the impact that her research will have,” she says.

In addition to her studies, Roters still finds time to engage in volunteer and leadership activities, including extracurricular sex offender research, running a mentorship program for new graduate students and being involved in athletics. She has also been enhancing her leadership skills by earning certificates in teaching, leadership, mental health and research.

“I have been very lucky to have a chance to work with a student who possesses all these qualities,” Book says.

Roters says the support she has received at Brock has been outstanding.

“Everyone I interact with at Brock has been exceptional,” she says. “From the team in the Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, to the Faculty of Graduate Studies funding team, and of course, my supervisor, Dr. Book, I have felt very supported.”

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