At university in the USA, she studied medicine at first ‘but when I discovered psychology I realised that was a way to really understand people. That led me into dealing with them at a community level.’
After graduation, she became involved in mental health work in remote mountain villages in Guatemala with women affected by the genocide and armed internal conflict that lasted there from 1960 to 1996. ‘We supported them as they created community networks, establishing a foundation on which they could then build and work towards the future they desired.’
Back in the USA, she gained a Masters in Peace and Justice Studies and a dual PhD in Peace Studies and Psychology. That led to research examining the impact of political violence in communities in Colombia, Croatia and Northern Ireland and eventually to her current job as a Lecturer in the School of Behavioural Science.
‘When I was studying for my doctorate at the University of Notre Dame I became involved with a research team collaborating with Queen’s. That early experience made me aware of what a wonderful institution Queen’s was.
‘I moved from working with women to working with youth, in particular the generation born after the peace accord. My research aims to understand what challenges they face that are different or unique from those faced before.’
She is part of an interdisciplinary international team in the closing stages of the ambitious sixyear Northern Ireland Project, a longitudinal study involving 1,000 mother-and-child pairs, examining the relations between political violence and the well-being of children.
‘We talk to the families over time to see how the kids think and feel, how attitudes and emotions might be changing and how they relate to family support and family stress.’
This part of the research is funded by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. A follow-up qualitative phase is being funded by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. There have been presentations at Stormont and at an event in Belfast involving community organisations.
‘We want to provide some depth to the longitudinal survey. We’re in the transition between basic research - trying to understand how things unfold over time and develop among young people - and moving towards informing policy and practice.
‘I focus on constructive outcomes. What are the things that might encourage young people to engage in more positive ways with the community, such as civic engagement rather than negative behaviours like rioting?
‘In a democracy we should be able to vote and hold political leaders accountable. If we believe that system works and we can see the impact, we’re going to buy into it.’
Laura says the theme of this research can apply in multiple contexts. She singles out its relevance in Croatia, to ‘youth growing up amid intergroup divide.’
She is grateful for the early support she received from the late Ed Cairns and also the help of her colleague at Queen’s, Professor Rhiannon Turner.
‘Interdisciplinary work is very important and I find I’m working in a very natural way with people in other schools. For example, I’ve made important connections in the School of Education. They’re fantastic collaborators.’
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