Meet Andrea Gonzalez

Dr. Andrea Gonzalez is one of the core members of the Offord Centre. She is an Associate Professor in the Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences and an Associate Member in the Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatics. Dr. Gonzalez is also a member of the McMaster Neuroscience Graduate Program. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the Offord Centre under the mentorship of Drs. Harriet MacMillan and Michael Boyle. Dr. Gonzalez’s current research focus is to understand the mechanisms by which early experiences are transmitted across generations and how preventive interventions may affect this transmission. Specifically, she is interested in how biological, neuropsychological and psychosocial factors contribute to parenting process and subsequent child development outcomes.

Tell us about your research at the Offord Centre in layman terms.

Dr. Gonzalez: I have two main lines of research. One is looking at the intergenerational transmission of risk, specifically caregivers who have experienced childhood adversity and how that impacts their parenting as well as some of their offspring outcomes. The second area I’ve been much more involved in recently is preventative parenting interventions . We look at how we can give parents strategies and support them on dealing with some of the stressors of parenting.

Why is this an important area to research?

Dr. Gonzalez: Kids do not come with instruction manuals, and parenting is really tough.  All parents could use tips – some more so than others.  Parenting is associated with all sorts of child outcomes including social and emotional functioning and cognitive development. If we help parents develop strategies in terms of how to deal with stressors  or manage child behaviour better, that will be helping not only the parent but ultimately, the child and their trajectory.

What are the potential implications of your research?

Dr. Gonzalez: We have a major study that we are launching looking at parenting interventions to prevent child maltreatment. If we are able to reduce that risk in parents by helping them in terms of their parenting behaviours and strategies, I think that it will help children to have healthier relationships with their parents, hugely impacting not only the community but the parents and children themselves. 

How has the Offord Centre helped support you as a core member?

Dr. Gonzalez: I started at the Offord Centre as a postdoctoral fellow working with Drs. Harriet MacMillan and Michael Boyle. I became a faculty member 6 years ago so I’ve been with the Offord Centre a total of 11 years. It’s a place that fosters strong collaborations and really helps people achieve their research objectives and dreams. I was never able to meet Dan Offord, but I always thought that it was like he created the four pillars of the Centre: Dr. Magdalena Janus, Dr. Peter Szatmari, Dr. Harriet MacMillan and Dr. Michael Boyle’s team. He mentored them and in turn, they mentored a new generation of researchers like Dr. Kathy Georgiades, Dr. Stellios Georgiades, Dr. Terry Bennett, Dr. Eric Duku, Dr. Melissa Kimber and myself. Dr. Ellen Lipman was another person who Dr. Offord mentored and now as the Director, I think she applies the principles and core values that Dr. Offord envisioned for us at the Offord Centre.

How has working with your research participants influenced you or your future research aspirations?

Dr. Gonzalez: I think my background in studying parenting and doing many home visits as a graduate student, as well as, a postdoctoral fellow has played a key role in influencing my research aspirations. Then, I became a mom myself, which was a big change and it made me appreciate how much parents have on their plates. We do not always realize the multiple stressors of work life balance, stress related to finances and other stressful situations. Parenting is really challenging and becomes even more difficult when you have additional stressors, such as mental health problems or worries about fulfilling your basic needs. Hence, I believe parenting children is an important part of the society and one of the most challenging tasks. I think interacting with research participants has made me realize how much people have on their plate and are doing the best they possibly can.

Tell us about why you chose your research area?

Dr. Gonzalez: I started my research with animal models at early life adversity, where I worked with rats initially at the University of Toronto studying mothering and various components of mothering. I was really interested in how early life adversity influenced mothering in rats and what biological components were a part of that. It was outlining the behaviour and brain aspect, as well as, the connection between them, which made me more interested in this area. When I became allergic to the rats and was not able to work with them anymore, I tried to apply the same model, where we looked at the cognitive and biological factors. Now we are applying these concepts to our intervention work to answer some of the questions about what interventions work for whom and why. I am really interested in mechanisms such as self-regulation, executing functioning and measures of stress physiology. I think it is about incorporating a multi-level approach to studying parenting. 

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up and why?

Dr. Gonzalez: When I was three I wanted to be a butterfly, and when I was 7, I wanted to be the President of the United States, however realized that really neither was possible and needed to come up with a better plan. In my undergraduate years, I wanted to be a Doctor so I enrolled myself in a lot of biology courses. Then my mind shifted to becoming a lawyer, because I enjoy questioning and researching certain topics. All of this eventually led to me taking a physiological psychology course, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This course evolved into doing research and satisfying the inquisitive part, while incorporating biology into behaviour and grew into my love research.