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‘Finished’ business

A psychology graduate's long road to a PhD

Campus and Community

By Kelly Foss

Lynn Frizzell always intended to get a PhD, but “life happened.”

The soon-to-be Dr. Lynn Frizzell.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

While it may have taken her a few years longer than expected – 11 of them, in fact – she will receive her PhD in psychology (developmental) during fall convocation at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre on Oct. 17.

She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) in psychology (behavioural neuroscience) at Memorial in 1990, and a master’s in 1995, under the supervision of “a wonderful mentor,” Dr. Carolyn Harley.

From rats to children

Her plan was to move from that into a PhD. However, she began to develop a severe allergy to the lab rats she worked with.

“I was wearing a double-respirating mask and gloves while working 12-hour days to finish my master’s,” said Ms. Frizzell. “There was no sense in continuing in that field if I wasn’t going to be able to manage a career in it. But a PhD was always my plan, which is why it felt like unfinished business.”

She investigated programs at other universities, but then started a family and stayed home for four years with her young children.

“People would say, ‘Why are you staying home? You’ve got a master’s degree,’” she said. “But my family was always my priority. Everything else had to balance around that.”

For over a decade, Ms. Frizzell evaluated child and family programs and policies for governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Ultimately, she returned to Memorial to work as a research co-ordinator for the Centre of Excellence for Children and Adolescents with Special Needs, under the direction of Dr. Mary Courage and Dr. Patricia Canning.

For the next decade, she worked with non-governmental organizations and government groups, evaluating child and family programs and policies. She wrote papers, travelled to conferences and did presentations. The whole time she was encouraged by Drs. Courage and Canning to start her PhD.

“I got to do all of those things because they gave me every opportunity, and I loved it, and after a couple of years, they convinced me,” she said. “I was 40 with a full-time job and two children – if I was ever going to do it, I thought I better get on with it.”

This time, instead of working with rats, Ms. Frizzell decided to switch her focus to “hypoallergenic creatures”: children.

More than just a daycare

She completed courses in 2008 and her comprehensive exam in 2009. For the comprehensive, she was given 12 weeks to research a topic and either find a gap in the literature or make a new connection.

“My idea came to me while sitting in a parking lot in Kelligrews in the dead of winter, waiting for my son’s hockey game to start,” said Ms. Frizzell. “That’s where I did a lot of reading – sitting in a car, or at dance studios, soccer fields and hockey stadiums. I also burned a lot of midnight oil, doing most of my work between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. after the kids had gone to bed.”

Ms. Frizzell tested 132 children at daycares across the region to determine if background television interfered with their learning.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

She wrote her paper and defended it, with distinction. Then she began a research project on whether background television interfered with children’s learning. She started collecting data at Memorial’s Childcare Centre and eventually included children from seven other daycares in the region.

“There would be a television on in the background while I was reading a child a story and asking questions, getting them to do a puzzle or a task on the iPad,” she explained. “I compared how well they performed with and without TV. The staff at Memorial’s daycare were indispensable. They are more than just a daycare; research is also part of their mandate.”

It took from 2011-13, to recruit and test 132 children and then she had to analyze and write up the data. That’s where things began to slow down.

“I had entire semesters where I didn’t make much progress because family members had serious illnesses, my husband and I both left jobs and started new ones,” said Ms. Frizzell. “Things happened.”

Weight of the world

Finally, she submitted her thesis for examination in September 2018 and defended it in June.

“The weight of the world came off my shoulders,” she said. “But through it all, I had incredible support from my husband, children, family and friends, and great role models in Mary, Patricia, Carolyn and my mother. I saw her go back to school when I was 12, so maybe we’re just a family of late bloomers.”

Despite the long nights and the time it took to reach the end, Ms. Frizzell says working towards her PhD opened new doors, including teaching and a new job as a grants facilitation officer with the Faculty of Science.

“Would I recommend people start a PhD at 40? Probably not. Do it in your 20s when you are young and unencumbered. But don’t turn down an opportunity because of age. It’s only a number.”


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