Dynamic duo fly high as Tall Poppy award winners

The complexity of modern living and its effects on our brains and behaviour has seen two Flinders University researchers become SA Tall Poppy 2019 finalists.

Flinders research psychologists Dr Oren Griffiths and Associate Professor Sarah Cohen-Woods are investigating common disorders of the 21st century.

“Just because we have a genetic risk for depression does not mean we will become depressed,” says Associate Professor Cohen-Woods, who investigates genomic and epigenomic bases of behaviour and psychological disorders, and how environments can alter these risks.

The Flinders Behavioural Genomic and Environmental Mechanisms Lab explores the connection between the forces of genetics, epigenetics and environment on mental health outcomes, fertility and even how school uniform equity may impact on child wellbeing.

“I investigate the genomic and epigenomic bases of behaviour and psychological disorders, and how environmental can contribute to, or alter, genomic and epigenomic risk,” she says.

The research focuses on immunogenetic risks for depression moderated by childhood maltreatment, and epigenetic variation associated with chronic early-life adversity, and whether this mediates a relationship of poor mental health.

Dr Griffiths research studies the interactions between knowledge, uncertainty and selective attention. He uses electrophysiological measures to study pre-attentive and covert attentional processes.

“The world is a complex place and our brains can only concentrate on a few things at once,” says Dr Griffiths, a lecturer in psychology at Flinders.

Dr Griffiths, from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, has ARC and Flinders University Impact seed funding grants and collaborates with the Georg August University in Marburg, Germany on one of his projects.

“However the brain is continuously and passively monitoring our surrounding environment for change.

“The disruption of these ‘pre-attentive’ processes, subtle, low-level components of attention, may be disrupted in people with schizophrenia or Parkinson’s.”

Associate Professor Cohen-Woods and Dr Griffiths are two of the State’s 2019 Tall Poppy of science award winners. They are also finalists for the overall 2019 SA Tall Poppy award to be announced at the SA Science Excellence Awards in Adelaide.

Another Flinders University academic, Associate Professor Karen Lower, from the College of Medicine and Public Health, is a finalist for STEM Educator of the Year – Tertiary Teaching at the SA Science Excellence Awards to be held at the Adelaide Convention Centre on 9 August.

Tall Poppies are selected for their outstanding research achievements, as well as outstanding scientific engagement, outreach and communication. The finalists for the Tall Poppy of the Year award are exceptional in all of these aspects.

Video presentations by the finalists in this year’s Australian Institute of Policy and Science Tall Poppy campaign can be found on the SA Government Department for Industry and Skills Youtube channel on 9 August.

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College of Education, Psychology and Social Work