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Perceptions of anxiety the focus for New Zealand Fellowship recipient

Monday 22 November 2021 11:04am

Dr Olivia Harrison 2021 image
Dr Olivia Harrison.

Otago-based neuroscientist Dr Olivia Harrison has been awarded a global fellowship to further her research into understanding anxiety, and how the way we perceive mental health can in-turn influence our response.

Hot off the heels of receiving the prestigious Rutherford Discovery fellowship, University of Otago’s Dr Harrison, has been awarded the annual 2021 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship.

This fellowship recognises the achievements of exceptional early-career female scientists to highlight the critical importance of ensuring a greater participation of women in science from a young age.

Today, only 28 per cent of researchers are women, with less than 20 per cent making up the most senior leadership positions. L’Oréal and UNESCO founded the For Women in Science programme in 1998 to promote important role that women play in science.

Dr Harrison receives $25,000 to support her ground-breaking studies understanding how individuals perceive symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath or sweaty palms – and how their response to this perception can further influence one’s mental state.

“It can be challenging to secure funding to advance scientific research, so receiving the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship means the world to me. Mental health is something that impacts everyone, and my hope is to use this funding to make a real difference to those who may be struggling,” says Dr Harrison.

The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship allows the recipient to use the funds for research related expenses, which uniquely also includes childcare costs, enabling the recipient to advance their work without practical barriers. Dr Harrison will use her fellowship for essential equipment.

“The structure of the fellowship allows me to secure the specialist gear that we need to run our breathing experiments – equipment that we wouldn’t be able purchase otherwise,” she said.

With one in four Kiwis at risk of developing mental health struggles1, the issue is receiving increasing attention from prominent figures, medical professionals and sufferers alike. While anxiety affects everyone to some degree, both women and younger people are particularly vulnerable.

“We know certain levels of anxiety can be healthy for things such as self-awareness, but as society continues to evolve, we are seeing anxiety occur at more disabling levels, and our coping strategies and treatments are lagging behind,” says Dr Harrison.

The topic is of both personal and professional interest to Dr Harrison, who knows what it is like to experience high levels of anxiety. She wants to help address some of the gaps in the way individuals identify and perceive signals from the body to better develop treatments and techniques to help manage the symptoms.

“Anxiety is unique to every individual and needs to be treated as such. The treatments that work well for some people, do not work for everyone. We also know that many common treatments don’t always stick, and it may be because we are not giving people the necessary tools for their specific anxiety profile.”

“Understanding your own personality may help provide insight into how and why we worry, and which strategies might help us best manage both our thoughts and symptoms,” says Dr Harrison.

While the Kiwi scientist’s research to-date has focused on the way the brain processes breathing perceptions, and how this might be changed with greater levels of anxiety, her upcoming studies – supported by the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship – will look at how treatments such as exercise  and anxiety medication may help improve symptom perception. This knowledge will help us to create innovative and tailored treatment plans for individuals in the future.

Dr Harrison was selected by an independent panel of science and research representatives to receive the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship. She joins four Australian-based fellows to be named this year; Dr Jiawen Li, Dr Mahdokht Shaibani, Dr Pip Karoly and Dr Kirsty Nash, all who are leading inspiring work to help find solutions to a number of global issues across their respective fields of medicine, mechanical engineering, marine biology, and climate change.

L’Oréal New Zealand’s Country Manager, Aurelie de Cremiers, says: “The role of science, research and modelling in the world in which we live has never been quite so paramount as it is today as we grapple with COVID‑19 pandemic. New Zealanders look to scientists with extremely high levels of trust and the knowledge that what they uncover helps us to address some of society’s most pressing issues, and women play a central role in these discoveries.”

“We are so proud to be able to award the 2021 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship to Dr Harrison. At L’Oréal, we have the responsibility to support the incredible work of women in science and we are excited to contribute to the work of Dr Harrison. Her research is already making a difference in the way we perceive and treat anxiety symptoms, and she will no doubt continue to make vast advancements in the different ways we understand and treat mental health in the future.”

Together with the four Australian-based fellows, Dr Harrison will attend a virtual ceremony to celebrate this outstanding achievement on December 1.

1. 2021 New Zealand Mental Health Foundation research