York doctoral student is a rising star in infancy research

One of the major concerns of most PhD students is finding funding. This is especially true for visa students, such as York doctoral student Gabriela Markova, who are not eligible for many Canadian research fellowships.

Markova has, in the past, supported herself by working as a researcher at the York Centre for Infancy Studies in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, and as a teaching assistant. But this year, she can sweep aside any financial worries. Markova is one of seven recipients of the 2007-2008 Susan Mann Dissertation Scholarship, which has a hefty monetary value of up to $21,000. “It means I can focus all my time on my dissertation,” says Markova.

The scholarship is awarded by the University’s Faculty of Graduate Studies to outstanding full-time students in their final year of doctoral studies.

Right: York doctoral student Gabriela Markova

York Psychology Professor Maria Legerstee, Markova’s thesis supervisor who nominated her for the scholarship, says the straight-A student demonstrates the necessary “ingredients” for success: being keenly interested in her area of study; being bright enough to understand any limitations; working hard; and participating actively in research and publications.

Originally from the Czech Republic, Markova studied in Austria at the University of Salzburg, where she completed a master’s degree in psychology in 2003, focusing on the development of theory of mind in children. She says she decided to come to York to do her PhD because she was “compelled by Legerstee’s research” at the York Centre for Infancy Studies.

While at York, Markova has delivered presentations at international conferences; served as a discussant and moderator at an infancy-research symposium in Japan; co-authored, with Legerstee, six published articles; and received a Certificate of Teaching Excellence from the Council of Canadian Departments of Psychology.

“She is a rising star,” says Legerstee. “The infancy research community is tight, so if you do good work, you get noticed. She is becoming known and her work is quoted.”

One article that the pair co-authored in 2006, Contingency, Imitation and Affect Sharing: Foundations of Infants’ Social Awareness," received coverage in the Canadian press (Toronto Star, Today’s Parent magazine, Baby Talk magazine) and in an Australian journal called Medical Studies/Trials Published after it was published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

The article was based on a study of mother-baby interactions that Legerstee conducted at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany which showed that babies can discern whether their mothers are emotionally tuned in to them. (See the April 18 issue of YFile.)

Legerstee asked Markova to develop an article based on the study’s findings. “Her comments and hypotheses showed a depth of knowledge of theory and empirical research in infancy psychology that I had not expected from a junior academic,” says Legerstee. "The final write-up was novel, excellent and creative, which warranted Markova being first author.” The article also earned Markova a Norman S. Endler Research Fellowship in Psychology (established in 2001 by Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus Norm Endler, who died in May 2003, and his family).

While some students, busy with course work, might find it onerous to take on the extra tasks involved in developing and writing journal articles with their supervisor, Markova is grateful for the opportunity. “I want to be a university professor, just like Dr. Legerstee," says Markova. Dr. Legerstee is guiding and mentoring me, and I really appreciate that she is showing me the way.”

With her dissertation, Markova will be one step closer to her goal as she will be making an independent academic contribution to the field, says Legerstee. Markova’s thesis is examining how babies interact with their peers and investigating whether they form friendships. “She has developed a very interesting and exciting PhD research proposal,” says Legerstee, “that will change theories of communication and emotional development.”

Story by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.