Blanca Piera Pi-Sunyer talks about her research into the impact of social and cultural influences on adolescent mental health and being a Gates Cambridge Scholar
It is really good to be surrounded by people who challenge you. Good research is about challenging your assumptions all the time and finding something that works to improve the lives of others.Blanca Piera Pi-Sunyer
Blanca Piera Pi-Sunyer  has long been fascinated by the impact of our social and cultural context on how we view the world. Understanding this is particularly important for teenagers as their brain continues to develop, and 75% of socioemotional disorders begin in adolescence.
Understanding this has become a more urgent issue in the light of the Covid pandemic, with concern mounting about the long-term impact of social isolation during lockdowns and other ongoing pressures, including worries about the climate crisis and mounting social inequality.
Blanca’s interdisciplinary PhD will investigate whether social, cultural and environmental issues change how adolescents define themselves – from social connection to access to green spaces – and what impact that has on their resilience, self esteem and risk of mental illness.
She will compare adolescents in two different cultures – Spain and the UK – working with the Institute of Global Health in Barcelona. Her hope is that she will be able to find practical things that can help improve adolescents’ mental health, for instance, access to green spaces.
Blanca was exposed to a variety of different cultures and perspectives as a child. Born in Barcelona, while her parents were on holiday from their home in Madrid, she soon moved to Portugal. She spent her early years in Cascais, a small fishing town just outside Lisbon with her two older siblings. When Blanca was 11 her family moved again to Barcelona where she attended an international school as she had in Portugal.
She liked the exposure to different perspectives, although she was aware it was what she calls “a bubble of privilege”. When she was 16 Blanca opted to go to a public school where she took courses in biology, human biology, chemistry, physics and maths.
There she became more involved in the Catalan culture at a time when Catalan politics were mobilising many young people. Her school put a big emphasis on studying, but Blanca also devoted time to tennis, dance and student politics, building very close friendships.
Although she knew she liked biology and was good at it, Blanca was also very interested in political activism. So when she left school she was not sure what to do next. She found a programme at the University of Amsterdam in Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics and decided to take psychology classes due to her interest in understanding the social influences on people’s lives. She ended up majoring in it.
A third of her course credits related to research skills and she discovered on the course how research could open up a career path for her. She was interested in bringing together social science and psychology. A particular interest was the interaction between culture, gender norms and mental health. Her end of course project was on whether we attribute responsibility differently for ‘moral’ crimes than other types of crime.
When she finished her course in 2018 Blanca wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She felt she was missing a hard science perspective on the human mind so she applied for a master’s in cognitive neuroscience at University College London. “I wanted to understand neurobiology and how it interacted with a person’s social context,” she says. It was at UCL that she realised that her real interest lay in the developing brain. There she met Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore who was in the developmental neuroscience group. Her research focused on brain changes throughout adolescence and how this impacts social behaviour and mental health.
Blanca did her master’s research project with Professor Blakemore’s team looking at peer influence in adolescent decision-making and what social influence was relevant to promote pro-social behaviour, such as voluntary work. The research project found that adolescents are more susceptible to pro-social influences than adults. “The focus seems to be on anti-social and at risk behaviour with adolescents, but our research showed there is a window of opportunity for pro-social behaviour which could be used in schools,” says Blanca, adding that social connectedness is vital.
Virtual social connection is something Professor Blakemore’s laboratory has been exploring. “In the pandemic social media can enable virtual social connection which could be a substitute for physical connectedness,” says Blanca. She continued to work as a research assistant in the laboratory after graduation when Professor Blakemore was in the process of moving to Cambridge and creating a new research group there.
Blanca was keen to remain in research and was interested in the social and cultural context of adolescent development. She wanted to compare different contexts. During the early part of the Covid pandemic she was talking to a laboratory colleague about the impact of social equality on mental health.
Blanca started looking at the data that exists on adolescent mental health. She was interested in particular in the statistics on disadvantage, which can be subjective and dependent on a particular context. For instance, she was interested to explore questions such as whether, if your friends are wealthier than you and make you feel unequal, your mental health is worse affected than if you are less wealthy but surrounded by others in a similar position. Her PhD will delve further into such issues.
Blanca is delighted to have the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and to be at the University of Cambridge where she has access to people from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. “I often feel challenged here,” she says. “It is really good to be surrounded by people who challenge you. Good research is about challenging your assumptions all the time and finding something that works to improve the lives of others.”