Rebecca Waller, the Director of the EDEN (Emotion, Development, Environment, & Neurogenetics) Lab, began her career as a high school science teacher in a public high school in London. The current Penn assistant professor never imagined that she would move to the United States, let alone lead her own lab group at Penn. Yet her never–ending fight for the welfare of children and families has brought her here.
Waller describes her four years as an educator: “It was an incredible job to have … apart from having a baby, it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was underfunded, it was a huge classroom, sometimes I wouldn’t have enough seats in the room for the number of kids I had.” In between teaching science lessons, she recalls spending a lot of time trying to understand and connect with students who struggled with behavioral and emotional issues.
She reflects, “I wanted to understand what was going on in the home life of these kids, what was going on in their communities, and how we could do more … and it seemed to me that we needed things to happen earlier.”
Not sure what her end goal may be but interested in the positive outcomes that she had seen in her school’s partnerships between teachers and social workers, Waller began a master’s program in Evidence–Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation at the University of Oxford, where she had previously completed her undergraduate and teaching degrees. Immediately, Waller was intrigued by early childhood parenting interventions for behavior and conduct problems. She focused on studying effective strategies for parents to navigate the difficult developmental transition that young children go through during the “terrible twos.”
This focus became the foundation for her Ph.D., and it led her to become increasingly interested in the neural circuits that are formed early in life that contribute to emotional regulation and understanding. After completing her Ph.D., she accepted a post–doctoral position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. America being foreign to her, she reflects that Michigan is “not on the East Coast … when I took that job, I thought it was. It’s actually very far away.”
Waller hadn’t planned to stay long in the United States, but her one–year program soon turned into a five-year one, as she met her husband and had a baby. In order to stay in the United States, she worked persistently at applying to academic jobs and, after many applications, was offered a position at Penn. Joining the Psychology Department in 2018, Waller brought her unique background and interdisciplinary approach to child behavior and parenting. She founded the EDEN Lab, which focuses on bettering our understanding of why some children develop aggressive and antisocial behaviors. She hopes to use this research to find strategies that can be used to treat and prevent these behaviors. “Antisocial behavior is a huge public health crisis and incredibly costly to society if you think about the costs in terms of hospitalizations, harms it does in communities, schools, and families, and, ultimately, incarceration,” she explains.
This past spring, as the COVID–19 pandemic first hit Philadelphia, Waller faced the tough decision to pause her research study. Data collection previously being reliant on young children’s real–time responses to emotions, she had to pivot her research focus to fit with the times. Understanding that parents are being forced to balance both childcare and their careers right now, Waller is currently researching the 2020 parenting experience and the effect of the pandemic on children. She explains: “There’s going to be lasting negative effects for many, many people … the burden that’s been placed on people, particularly people that are having to work full–time through this while also managing the full–time care of their children. To me, telling that story is really important.”
With a strong belief that supporting parents should be one of the primary priorities of a society, Waller hopes that her research will inform policy and demonstrate just how important parental support is for the academic, social, and behavioral successes of children.
Acknowledging her circuitous route to research, Waller maintains that it has been her greatest strength. She shares a lasting message to students with their own complicated interests and passions: "It's important as professors that we’re honest about our paths because the danger is if we don’t, that limits access and that makes students believe that they can’t enter a certain pathway when they definitely can."