Wirral Child Health and Development Study: First Steps

Research Team


Professor Jonathan Hill, University of Reading

I am Lead investigator on the study at the University of Reading, with a background in research into the developmental origins of child and adult psychopathology. Much of my work has aimed to identify disorders in ways that bring us closer to an understanding of causal processes, for example in the personality disorders. First Steps has provided us with a major opportunity to do this in relation to conduct disorders, through the study, from pregnancy onwards, of biological, social, and psychological processes underpinning contrasting patterns of aggressive and disruptive behaviours in children. Building on current developmental and parenting research, I have proposed a ‘domains framework’ for understanding and observing family processes, as a basis for therapeutic approaches with children and their parents.

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Professor Helen Sharp, University of Liverpool

I am Lead Investigator for the First Steps study at the University of Liverpool and I provide psychological and clinical expertise to the study. My background is in research in adult mental health, perinatal psychology, and clinical child psychology. The First Steps research study spans the fields of perinatal psychology, parental mental health, parenting and the identification of psychological, social and biological processes involved in children’s emotional and behavioural development. The aim of the research work is to inform the development of new interventions to ameliorate these difficulties early in life. I also now lead a parallel longitudinal study investigating shared and distinctive risks and protective factors for child mental health in India, called the Bangalore Child Health and Development Study. Studying child development in the urban slums of Bangalore brings another set of challenges and is particularly interesting given the environmental and cultural differences between the UK and India. In the University I teach trainee Clinical Psychologists and supervise a number of Masters and PhD research students. I also work part time as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in the Parent-Infant Mental Health Service and within 0-13 CAMHS, Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. In my National role as Chair of the Faculty of Perinatal Psychology, British Psychological Society I am actively involved in training other clinicians and advising on national policy and practice initiatives in perinatal and early parent-child interventions.

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Professor Andrew Pickles, Kings College London

I am Lead Investigator at King’s College London and bring developmental and statistical expertise to the research team. I am Director of the Biostatistics Department, King’s College London and a lead in the Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. I have worked on a range of studies, some of children with problems such as autism and others, like First Steps, examining the patterns and variation in the development of children from the general population. First Steps is proving to be the most fascinating study, a real privilege to be part of.

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John Quinn

Professor John Quinn, University of Liverpool

I am a co-investigator on the First Steps Study. I bring expertise in the area of neurobiology and contribute to the analysis of genetic samples from study participants. I contribute to scientific papers related to the interplay between children’s genetic make-up and the environment they grow up in. Our broader areas of research in mental health are focused on gene-environment interactions, how these combine to shape brain function and how the environment (psychological & physiological) can modify in the short or long term the neurochemicals in the brain.

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Dr Chris Murgatroyd, MMU

I am a co-investigator on the First Steps Study. I am a Senior Lecturer in genetics at Manchester Metropolitan University and supervise a number of Masters and PhD research students. My major interests are in how genes important for behaviour can become programmed in response to the early-life environment and maternal care.

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Research and Support Team

Nicky Wright

Dr Nicky Wright

I joined the First Steps study in 2009 as a Masters student and am now the Post-Doctoral Research Assistant on the study. I completed my PhD at the University of Liverpool in early 2018. My research focuses on the development of aggression and behaviour problems in young children, particularly when accompanied by low concern for others and lower pro-social skills. On the study I now take a lead role in overseeing the running of the research assessments. At past assessment phases my main role was to conduct the interviews with mothers about their mental health, relationships, forms of stress in their lives and how they gain support through difficult times. I have also carried out assessments with the children in the study at ages 3, 7 and now at age 9 years. I really enjoy every aspect of working on the First Steps study - although if I had to pick my absolute favourite I think it would be researching and purchasing the prizes for our infamous prize cupboard!

Dr Karen Rafferty

I joined the First Steps team as lead administrator in January 2015 and I work alongside the other administrative staff to ensure the smooth running of the study for both the families involved and the research staff who are busy gathering data. My training was in Chemistry, having completed both a Masters and a PhD, before joining an international Neuromuscular Network, where I gained a lot of experience in the set-up and management of patient registries for rare diseases. It is exciting to be joining such an important and long standing study and I look forward to the challenges ahead!

Matthew Bluett-Duncan

I graduated with a BSc in Applied Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in 2012 and then went on to gain a Masters degree with Distinction in Research Methods in Psychology at the University of Liverpool in 2014. I spent some time working with the First Steps team whilst I was completing my Masters dissertation, which examined the relationship between the maternal environment and the development of fear in infants. Following the completion of my degree, I was taken on as a research technician and I am now a full time member of the team delivering assessments to parents and children on the study. I am also part of the team tasked with liaising with class teachers as we look to widen the scope of the study. I am particularly interested in how the parenting environment interacts with other factors to influence the development of different children.

Laura Bozicevic

I completed my Masters degree with Distinction in Psychology at the University of Bologna (Italy). I am currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Reading, whilst I work as research assistant at the University of Liverpool. My PhD, with Professor Lynne Murray at the University of Reading, focuses on the effect of culture and quality of early mother-infant interaction on child emotion-regulation development in the first three years of life. I joined the First Steps team in April 2017, to act as a link between the teams working on the Wirral Child Health and Development Study in UK and its replication in India, the Bangalore Child Health and Development Study. My current research interests focus on the identification of early risk and protective factors for childhood mental health problems, and the specific effects that culture and parenting style have on later child development.

Kerrie Breeze

I joined the administration team for the study in October 2015. My role is very busy and varied providing support to the researchers and the other members of the admin team. I am looking forward to helping provide an efficient support service to enable the continued smooth running of the study. I am very happy to be working as part of the team for such an interesting study. 

Dr Leonardo De Pascalis

I am Lecturer in Developmental Psychopathology at the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society of the University of Liverpool, where I am also part of the Perinatal, Infant and Child Mental Health research group. The main areas of my research work focus on adult mental health during the period of the transition to parenthood, on mother-infant interactions, and the effect these have on later child development and mental health. The First Steps study represents an ideal opportunity to expand the scientific knowledge available on these topics, and I have been honoured to collaborate with its research team since 2016.

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Sarah Hodson

I studied for my BSc in Psychology at The University of Manchester, graduating in 2007 with a first class degree. I then gained a PCGE in Primary Education from The University of Manchester in 2009. Following this, I was a primary teacher for 7 years across a variety of age groups within Salford City and Cheshire East Councils. In 2017, I graduated from The University of Manchester with a Master’s degree in Psychology of Education. I joined the research team as a Research Technician in September 2017 to complete age 9 parent and child assessments. These include cognitive, social and emotional developmental assessments and observations. My research interests include the safeguarding of children and children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Carolina Griz

I graduated with BSc in Psychology as the class valedictorian at Estágio de Sá (2011) and then I went on to gain a Masters degree with Distinction in Cognitive Psychology at UFPE in 2014. I am currently pursuing my PhD in Psychology at the University of Liverpool. My work as a researcher has been centred around the study of relationships formed at school, such as peer harassment, peer victimization and particularly bullying behaviours. I have recently been appointed honorary researcher for the WCHADS and my job as part of the team consists in administrating assessments to parents and children on the study. I am particularly interested in predictors of bullying, which is focus of my PhD studies.

Stuart Kehl

Stuart Kehl

I joined the ‘The First Steps Study’ team back in 2010 and, since then, have had the pleasure of completing assessments with the families when the kids were aged 1, 2½, 4½, 7 and now 9 years of age. Alongside the assessments, my work has involved looking at observational ratings of mother-child interactions including maternal sensitivity and the ‘Parent and child interaction system’ (PARCHISY), as well as looking at child empathy and parental mind-mindedness. I have also become greatly involved with the behind the scenes set-up of our labs including the audio-visual equipment as well as our physiology recording equipment. My research interests include looking at how physiological measures, such as vagal tone and electro dermal activity can educate us about children’s development in terms of emotional difficulties, conduct disorders and anti-social behaviour.

Sarah Levy

I first worked with First Steps in 2015 as an honorary research assistant, whilst studying for my Psychology degree at the University of Manchester. Upon graduating with first class honours in 2017, I was delighted to be offered to join the team full time as a Research Technician. Primarily, my job involves carrying out assessments with children and families taking part in the study, which I find very enjoyable. My particular interests lie in Social and Health Psychology. Given my hopes to complete further study in the future, I feel very excited and lucky to be involved with such an interesting and long-running project.

Kay Martin

I have been a member of the Admin team since January 2013. My busy role involves preparing the information and questionnaire packs for mothers and fathers taking part in the study. I am involved in many of the office administration procedures but perhaps the most important is sending out ‘thank-you’ vouchers to families once the assessments are complete and purchasing gifts for the children to reward them for their time and help with the research!

Miriam Refberg

I studied for my Psychology degree at the University of Liverpool. I first got to know the First Steps team in 2011, where I completed my dissertation at the study. I have a keen interest in brain development and neurobiology and have been working on the study as an honorary research assistant since early 2015, coding a variety of data. Recently, I have been taken on as a full time research technician, where my role involves conducting year 7 assessments with the mums and children involved in our research. I really enjoy these interactions and feel very strongly about the study and its aims and I am honoured and excited to be a part of the First Steps team!

Callum Rutherford

I graduated from Lancaster University in 2014 with a degree in History. I went on to complete an MA in Research Methodology (Sociology and Social Policy) at the University of Liverpool, where my research focused on Food Banks and Food Poverty. I am now studying for a PhD in Public Health, at the University of Liverpool. My research focuses on how social inequalities affects child mental health and development using data collected as part of the Wirral Child Health and Development Study.

Current Postgraduate Students

Matthew Bluett-Duncan, PhD Student, Joint studentship between University of Liverpool and NIMHANS, Bangalore, India
Carolina Griz, PhD Student, University of Liverpool
Callum Rutherford, PhD student, University of Liverpool

Previous Students: Kate Abbott, PhD awarded, IPHS, University of Liverpool; Nik Darshane, PhD awarded, University of Cambridge; Fay Huntley, PhD awarded, University of Manchester; Helen Jones, PhD awarded, IPHS, University of Liverpool; Maurizio Manca, PhD awarded, Translational Medicine, University of Liverpool; Ruth Piccuci, Doctorate in Clinical Psychology awarded, University of Liverpool; Ruth Richman, MSc Research Methods, University of Liverpool; Kate Marks, PhD awarded, University of Manchester; Florin Tibu, PhD awarded, University of Manchester; Nicky Wright, PhD awarded, IPHS, University of Liverpool. Justine Kelly, Doctorate in Clinical Psychology awarded, University of Liverpool; Jenny Lee, Doctorate in Clinical Psychology awarded, University of Liverpool; Joanne Roberts, Doctorate in Clinical Psychology awarded, University of Liverpool.

We also wish to thank past team members who have helped so much to make the study a success

Study administration: Niki Sandman, Joanne Don, Rebecca Holmes, Liz Green, Karen Murphy and Lucy Delaney

Researchers: Rachael Bedford and Veri Pessoa

Research midwives: Karen Lunt, Carol Bedwell, Belinda Thompson

Adult interviewers: Fay Huntley, Kirsty Entwistle, Kate Marks, Gemma Culverwell, Nichaela Broyden, Holly Hope, Julie Carlisle, Gillian Fairclough

Infant assessors: Florin Tibu, Jeanette Appleton, Carol Sadler

Questionnaire phases: Melissa Bensinyor, Elaine Roy, Joanne Roberts, Jenny Lee

Parent and child phases: Alice Hulbert, Giovanna Morretto, Laura Davies , Megan McKenna, Louise Woolfall, Kate Abbott, Andrea Clark, Louise Fisher and Helen Chadwick

Research Health Visitors: Donna Yarlett, Louise Adams