Dr. Lori Bradford (PhD) is an assistant professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability. (Photo: Victoria Schramm)

Autism a blessing for dedicated SENS researcher

University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher Dr. Lori Bradford (PhD) wants to help update social psychology for water and health-related problems in today’s vastly different world.

By Victoria Schramm

For Bradford, that passion for change comes from a very personal place.

“The personal side of why I am passionate about my research is because I am autistic,” said Bradford. “I have a dramatically singular focus on my work. For example, I will sit sometimes for hours and hours re-reading interview transcripts or poring over a database for patterns.”

An assistant professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS) at USask, Bradford said her autism helps her to be an exceptionally dedicated researcher.

“I was happy to find both a profession and a workplace where my autism would be a blessing,” said Bradford. “There are not many other careers where my different sort of personality is embraced.”

She mentioned that although this ability to focus for long periods is a helpful symptom for her, all people with autism are unique and have their own symptoms and skills.

“In SENS, I hope that I can be a role model for neurodiverse students who need to figure out the right kind of support network to help them succeed,” she added.

Bradford is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research focuses on the intersection of water systems and social psychology. At SENS, she studies how individuals and groups interact with one another and the environment to identify ways to improve the well-being of people and the planet.

“Professionally, I am passionate about this research because much of the state of current knowledge on social psychology and well-being was derived decades ago using studies that did not reflect diversity or the full picture,” said Bradford.

“Many of the touchstone experiments in the field of psychology were conducted in labs with young, upper-class white men as subjects. The advances in technology have also changed the way that people think and behave, as has our need to consider climate change in everything we do,” she added.

Bradford has held appointments across USask since 2012, including with SENS, the School of Public Health, and the Department of Psychology, and was eager to set down roots on campus.

“I’m personally drawn to SENS as a school and I would say as a lifestyle because I have always been attracted to complicated problems,” said Bradford. “I really believe in SENS’ interdisciplinary, problem-oriented and experiential approach to preparing students for today’s problems and those of the future.”

The friendly community at SENS was part of what won her over.

“Staff, students, and faculty here in SENS thrive because they have each other’s back,” she said. “It is a busy school, and it’s nice to know that there is someone to turn to when needed.”

Being a researcher is a natural extension of her lifelong thirst for knowledge.

“I have always been a collector of information,” she said. “My favourite shows growing up were Jeopardy and The Nature of Things.”

When she looks to the future, Bradford wants to be a leader in decolonizing, transdisciplinary research, to help scientists prioritize reconciliation as they carry out research with Indigenous people about water governance, health and well-being.

“I am filled with gratitude for the lessons Indigenous collaborators have taught and guided me to understand, and I hope I can facilitate this learning for others, including our political leaders in Canada and abroad,” she said.