Psychology, Research

SFU Leaders in Public Engagement: Dr. Marlene Moretti of the Department of Psychology

February 28, 2014

Dr. Marlene Moretti came to SFU in 1989 as an assistant professor and has steadily established herself as an expert in the field of adolescent psychology—particularly in relation to issues of gender and aggression and the mental health of adolescents.  Over the course of 20 years, Dr. Moretti has become a leader in public and academic engagement: she has done so through community-based service, numerous peer-reviewed publications, conference organization, and successful research grants.  Presently the Senior Research Chair in Gender for the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), she is also a consulting psychologist for the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development, and a principle investigator and educator for the government sponsored program Connect, which combines research and practice in relation to adolescent-parent attachment, adolescent development and effective parenting practices. Additionally, she has long-standing community connections locally, including with such partners as the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre and the Surrey School District.

Dr. Moretti remembers that in the beginning of her time at SFU, “community engagement was less common in the ‘early’ days and it was certainly not identified or promoted as a central tenet of SFU vision.”  She goes on to say that most researchers “‘engaged’ community on our own, finding partners who would support and collaborate in research wherever we could.”  This kind of reaching out and collaboration was “critical” in pursuing research on youth mental health at the time, she says.  Having developed a trusted relationship over time with these community organizations, Dr. Moretti is grateful for these connections and believes them to “true collaborators”:  “Without these strong partnerships I could never have completed the work that I have pursued and I greatly value my community partners as true collaborators in all we have undertaken.”

When asked about what sparked her initial interest in the field of adolescent health she is reflective:  “I think most of us have had the experience as teenagers of having known a friend or someone in our peer group who developed mental health problems.”  As a graduate student in clinical psychology at SFU during the 1980s, she remembers that she was “engaged in research on depression in adolescents in collaboration with colleagues in psychiatry at the old Vancouver General Hospital.” At the time, she reflects, despite the fact that “adolescence was such an important and often creative developmental period, there was virtually no research on mental health and few if any treatment programs that specifically targeted the adolescent developmental period.”  Thus began the research track in which she and her colleagues published “several papers that spoke to the need to recognize depression in adolescents and to ensure that they were asked about their symptoms, not just their parents.”

One of Dr. Moretti’s current projects is the CIHR-funded team project with Dr. Robert McMahon, “Reducing Violence and Victimization in At-Risk Adolescent Girls and Boys,” funded from 2011-2016.  Dr. Moretti explains that she is adding to more than a decade of research she has pursued with SFU’s Adolescent Health Lab.  She and her team of students, researchers and clinicians have been working with at-risk teens, particularly those with “antisocial and aggressive behavior.”

While she notes that she and her team have “published broadly on risk factors in relation to mental health problems in teens” she says that they have presently “focused on protective factors because knowledge is lacking this regard.”  The “immense importance of parent-teen relationships, or what we call attachment” she says is “a protective factor during this important developmental transition.”  This knowledge has informed and transformed the research that has become Connect—what Dr. Moretti calls “a program that can be easily transported to diverse communities, both urban and local.” Connect’s scope includes “attachment between parents and teens.” Dr. Moretti says it is "designed to be delivered by a wide range of mental health, education and other professionals.  It is designed to be easily transported and sustained in communities.” To say the program has been a success is an understatement.  Dr. Moretti says, to date, the “outcomes of the program have been tracked in over 4,000 families across British Columbia. It has also been translated into Swedish and evaluated in a large randomized trial with outcomes tracked for two years following treatment.”

Another project Dr. Moretti is excited about is the collaboration with the Surrey School District: “a prevention trial that targets the transition from elementary school to high school.”  Research shows, she says, that “the onset of puberty is associated with deep and broad changes at a neurobiological level.” What happens in the brain, she says, is a “growth in grey matter and it is reshaped during adolescence through a process of pruning that is sensitive to social experience. Teens move toward greater autonomy in regulation of emotions, behaviour and relationships.” Through the Connect program, Dr. Moretti and her team are investigating how parents can engage adolescents in a way that “promotes autonomy but provides a secure base teens can thrive through in this transition period.”  She explains further that they are looking at a “stress hormone called cortisol in both parents and teens” and her research team believes that the Connect program “may improve stress regulation” both in parents and their teenaged children.

As a leader and mentor, it is unsurprising, then, that Dr. Moretti received the SFU Dean of Arts Medal for Teaching, Research, and Service in 2012.  This kind of commitment demonstrates a particular strength in a researcher and teacher. When asked how she manages it, Dr. Moretti responds that her CIHR Research Chair award has afforded her the time for focus on her research but she is still very much committed and engaged in teaching at the graduate level—a statement which is corroborated by the fact that she involves her graduate students in the work happening in the Adolescent Health Lab.  When asked about her teaching philosophy, she explains that she tries to “engender [in students] a sense of commitment and responsibility to their field; to take charge of their educational experience and to make opportunities rather than wait for them to come along.” Her advice to young researchers? “Choose what you do,” she says, “and do it fully. Make it your own. This does not mean a blind passion without partnership and collaboration; quite the opposite. But it does mean that intentionality is critical.”