Congratulations to Dr. Emma Morton who received a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship from CIHR to develop and evaluate an app called PolarUs to help people living with bipolar disorder self-manage their symptoms and improve their wellbeing. Dr. Morton is supervised by DMCBH member Dr. Erin Michalak, who leads the Collaborative Research Team to Study Psychosocial Issues in Bipolar Disorder (CREST.BD).

Dr. Morton has studied bipolar disorder for many years. For her PhD project, she looked at how to better understand the definition and measurement of quality of life (QoL) in people with bipolar disorder. QoL is a broad concept that takes many factors into consideration such as physical health, relationships and a sense of personal wellbeing. It’s often used in research, but it’s difficult to measure and even more challenging to draw conclusions across different studies.

During her PhD, Dr. Morton came to Canada for a few weeks in 2015 with her supervisor to participate in a series of CREST.BD community knowledge translation events. This is when she first met Dr. Michalak and learned more about her work with CREST.BD.

“I was thrilled by the type of work Dr. Michalak and her team were doing,” says Dr. Morton. “They were involved in research but also dedicated to getting the results of that research into the hands of community members and it felt like a great environment to be a part of.”

In 2019, Dr. Morton received a fellowship from the Marshall Scholars and Fellows Program in Mental Health, an award provided through the Institute of Mental Health and UBC’s Department of Psychiatry. Shortly after winning this award Dr. Morton moved to Vancouver where she joined Dr. Michalak’s team as a postdoctoral fellow and started her work on the app.

The continued development of this app—which builds on more than a decade’s worth of research from the CREST.BD team—is the main project that will be supported by her Banting Fellowship. PolarUs is intended to act as a pocket navigator, where people living with bipolar disorder can track how they’re feeling and identify areas they might need support with. For example, if someone notices they’re struggling with sleep and want to improve their self-management of this domain, the app will provide strategies on how to get a better night’s rest.

“People with bipolar disorder face a major challenge in accessing evidence-informed health information online,” says Dr. Erin Michalak. “We’re hoping the PolarUs app can help dismantle some of these barriers, with the ultimate goal of optimising their health and QoL.”

Dr. Morton is currently working on developing the app with the help of a diverse community advisory board to make sure the final version is inclusive and grounded in what people living with bipolar disorder deem important.

“There’s really a deep need for this kind of research on how to improve the lives of people living with bipolar disorder, and apps are a good way to help them access the help they need when they need it,” says Dr. Morton. “This illness has a fluctuating course, so they’re sometimes viewed as not needing as much support as other areas of mental health, which isn’t true. In other words, they sometimes drop into this “missing middle” and my hope is this research will change this.”

Each year 70 Banting Fellowships are awarded to postdoctoral trainees across the globe who have demonstrated top research talent. Dr. Morton says she is thrilled to have been chosen among so many impressive applicants and hopes this will provide her with the opportunity to position herself as a leader in digital mental health research.

“I would like to continue focusing my work on wellness-based interventions that can be practically and affordably disseminated,” says Dr. Morton. “I want to get to the end of my career and be able to look back and see that the projects I worked on made a difference.”

Dr. Michalak echoes Dr. Morton’s excitement over the award.

“Emma’s early postdoc work on this project has been stellar and her input has advanced the scientific quality of the project tremendously,” says Dr. Michalak. “The fact that the quality of her work and promise as a future scientist has now been recognized with a Banting award is one of the best experiences you can have as a supervisor. I can’t wait to see where her career takes her.”