Feature Story: Caitlin Atkinson, March 2021

Feature Story banner: Caitlin Atkinson March 2021

Caitlin Atkinson recruits study participants from all over North America

By Eric Brousseau
Queen’s Psychology
March 30, 2021

For Queen’s Psychology faculty and graduate students, conducting research over the past 12 months has been anything but business as usual. COVID-19 restrictions have meant that researchers have had to literally think ‘outside the box’ of their normal lab spaces in Craine Building and Humphrey Hall.

Over the next few weeks we’ll hear from researchers on how their plans and practices have changed and evolved in COVID times.

PhD student Caitlin Atkinson is a researcher in Dr. Mark Sabbagh’s Early Experience Lab. Caitlin’s research involves understanding the effects of parents’ behaviour on children’s social and non-social cognitive development. “In my current study, I am looking at how different kinds of parent-child interactions might relate to children's performance on various kinds of laboratory tasks,” Caitlin explains. “Parents are asked to talk to their children about different topics while we record their conversation -- some parents might be asked to talk about the kinds of things they do on a typical morning or they might be asked to talk about ways in which they and their children are similar. We then play games with the child through a PowerPoint presentation.”

Due to physical distancing regulations surrounding COVID-19, Caitlin has had to shift the methods of her study. The Early Experience Lab is now using Zoom to collect data from participants as opposed to having them come into the lab. To do this lab researchers present social and non-social cognitive tasks to preschoolers through PowerPoint over Zoom. While conducting in-person studies in the Early Experience Lab, Caitlin would typically use puppets and more tangible items in her interactions with participants. “I found that trying to use the puppets over Zoom was not as engaging for the participants and we couldn’t keep the attention of the children, so I created a story and have the children going on an “adventure” through PowerPoint over Zoom,” Caitlin says. “On the ‘adventure’ we meet characters who speak through the PowerPoint presentation and the child helps the researchers find a lost puppy. We have a map of all the stops we are going to, and at each stop they do a task.”

Parents’ response to participating via Zoom has been very positive. “Parents have said that it is easier to attend the appointments because they take place in their living rooms and they don’t have to worry about childcare for siblings or driving to Queen’s campus,” Caitlin explains. “Children are used to doing some school work online and find the games exciting and entertaining. Parents have been surprised with how well the study keeps their child’s attention.”

While using Zoom to conduct research has not been without challenges, Caitlin and her team have also seen some positive aspects of their new workflow. Specifically, the study has recruited a more diverse sample beyond the Kingston region. Participants now join in from Florida, New York, Toronto, Ottawa and many other places all over North America. “I was worried about having enough participants in Kingston alone since my age range is restricted (3 years 6 months to 4 years 6 months),” Caitlin recalls. “So being able to recruit all over the world is helpful.”

Although Caitlin and her team of researchers miss working with and supporting each other in person, working remotely has allowed research assistants to be located anywhere in the world, opening up new opportunities to many students who would have found it difficult to come into the lab space on Queen’s campus. Currently Caitlin’s team members are from as close by as Kingston and Toronto, to as far away as Vancouver and China.

Caitlin plans to complete the current online study in due course, but Post-pandemic, she and her project team in the Early Experience Lab hope to return to their space at Queen’s University and resume in-person studies. “We’re very grateful to the Department of Psychology for investing in Zoom, so that our lab and others could make the switch to working with each other and participants remotely,” Caitlin concludes. “It’s good to know that we can run studies online if we want to recruit beyond the Kingston area and we have a reliable system for that kind of recruitment. It’s exciting that families all over the world are inviting our research into their homes.”

If you are interested in participating in this research, check out the Early Experience Lab website for more details.