Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Dean of Science Dr. Petra Hauf top 10 finalist for prestigious research award

May 8th, 2017
Dr. Petra Hauf

Novel research that fills a gap into enhancing children’s development through motor activity has earned StFX Dean of Science and psychology professor Dr. Petra Hauf international recognition. She is a top 10 finalist for a new and prestigious research award, the Frontiers Spotlight Award, which carries a U.S. $100,000 prize.

For a year, the academic open-access publisher Frontiers has been searching for the hottest research that could have a ground-breaking impact.

“Almost 800 teams came together around research topics addressing major global challenges. Frontiers has shortlisted 10 outstanding finalists, topics edited by the brightest minds from the best universities around the globe, for this new Spotlight Award,” they say.

Dr. Hauf and Dr. Klaus Libertus of the University of Pittsburgh edited the Research Topic examining “Motor skills and their Foundational Role for Perceptual, Social, and Cognitive Development,” published in Frontiers in Psychology.

A jury drawn from Frontiers’ editorial boards will choose the winning team based on international reach, subject novelty and coverage, interdisciplinary character, and academic excellence. The winner will be announced at the end of May.

The funding prize will support the winning team to organize an international scientific conference around their research topic in 2018.

Dr. Hauf says she was excited to hear of the top 10 selection as it acknowledges and recognizes the importance of this field of study. She says this research topic highlights the importance of motor skills for healthy development and the critical role of motor skills for infants’ and children’s interactions with the physical and social world. She is especially excited that the team brought together 27 articles from 113 expert scientists in the field, integrating newest evidence in basic research with applied research and intervention possibilities.

“The articles in this Research Topic,” she says, “address one of the biggest challenges in developmental science: what are the mechanisms behind developmental processes supporting children’s learning and growth?”

Motor skills have long been thought critical for a child’s development. However, why these skills are important and how they affect development in other areas of growth remains poorly understood, she says.

“The research presented here fills this gap and examines how mastering or learning a new motor skill changes the child’s ability to act upon and interact with the world, and how the environment responds to these changes. These findings have the potential to change established theories on child development and encourage the field to focus more on the often unseen contributions of children’s active exploration and engagement.”

Realizing that motor experiences are important for perceptual, social, and cognitive development raises the question whether motor delays may play an important role in developmental disorders and mental health, she says.

Applied research included in the study demonstrates that motor skills are indeed impacted in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and in depressive or anxiety disorders. “This observation is critical, but maybe more critical are observations showing that we can improve a child’s motor skills and that these improvements have the ability to positively impact other areas of development.”

She says it is exciting to see that research shows promising evidence that this is indeed possible in both typically developing children and in children with Cerebral Palsy. Taken together, the findings presented not only inform basic science, but also provide important information for clinicians and pediatricians who rely on new approaches when working with children.

 This new evidence also encourages everyone–including teachers and parents–to focus more on children’s early motor skill development, motor engagement, and motor activity, she says.  “Children take pleasure in physical activity and this Research Topic demonstrates the huge benefits of motor skills for a healthy development.”

Dean Hauf also held a Canada Research Chair position in Cognitive Development at StFX from 2006-2016; her research is funded by the CRC program, CFI and NSERC. 

This research is, in part, made possible by the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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