I study children’s language, cognitive, and neural development—and the extent to which they interact with societal structures to reproduce inequity.
This work has led me to use a range of methods, centered around three main research questions. I've been lucky to receive generous funding for this research.
I'm committed to open science, and to fostering diversity at every level of the research process, including through mentoring and scientific outreach.
Some questions I'm currently asking include:
Do structural constraints and external resources contribute to differences in parenting behavior?
In one set of studies, we found preliminary evidence that parents with relatively high levels of resources speak less to their children when they are facing financial scarcity—perhaps due to competing demands on attention. You can read an open-access version of the study here.
In an ongoing study, we are examining whether structural volatility associated with the COVID-19 pandemic affects parents' speech to their children. Does parents' speech with their children change as a function of their mood or their worries; their job security, day-to-day responsibilities, or feeling of safety in their home; even national events like human rights protests, elections, or numbers of COVID cases? By collecting repeated samples from young children's early environments over this period of time, we can ask what matters for one individual family, independent of other families. You can learn more about the study here.
How do we understand "optimal" brain development?
For many years, the study of human brain development has relied on children whose parents have been willing and able to bring them into a university and allow stranger-researchers to measure their brain function or structure. (If you have ever been in an MRI scanner, you know that they are not un-intimidating metal tubes that make weird, often quite loud noises.) The result? Most of our understanding of brain development came from children whose parents were relatively wealthy and highly educated and typically white and lived near universities and trusted researchers and had some extra time to spend in a lab. In other words, not the "typical" human population.
As researchers have come to recognize this problem, we've made great strides in recruiting more representative samples. However, we run into problems when we try to compare children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds against these previously established developmental "norms." In my research, I ask what is adaptive for whom and under what circumstances.
Using a study of 10,000 children across the United States, we have found that patterns of brain function that are cognitively adaptive for children whose families are living below poverty are not the same as those that have been established in the prior literature. You can read an open access version of our findings here. We've recently followed up to track how these children are doing one and two years later, and found that this dissociation between what's adaptive for children above and below poverty holds up over time (read the published version of the follow-up here). We think this might point to children in poverty having to overcome very different sets of structural barriers in order to perform highly on cognitive tests and in school.
To what extent do children develop skills suited to the demands of their environments?
While it is relatively easy to study how children perform on canonical tests of executive function and reasoning, these are tests of cognitive skills that have typically been designed by researchers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, based on a particular set of values and expectations. They are neither the only cognitive skills available to children nor the only skills necessary to thrive in the world.
In my research, I am interested in understanding the other skills available to children. For example, do children whose environments consist of more overheard speech (e.g., speech to parents or siblings) than speech directed to them (e.g., caregiver directly talking to child) develop superior abilities to learn from overheard speech? Do children in these environments develop more broad attention skills, such that they are able to learn information from multiple sources of information at once? We are asking these questions in ongoing studies, which you can read more about here.
I believe that science is a collaborative endeavor that benefits from access and participation at all levels.
This means I make it a point to pre-register my hypothesis-driven studies and make my data and analysis scripts publicly accessible, but it also means that I am committed to sharing my work widely and engaging with feedback and criticism. I believe that people both within and outside of the scientific community have a right to evaluate my work—and have access to what they need to do so.
Former research assistants (left to right) Melissa Jauregui, Mercedes Sosa Cordero, Estelle Berger, and Betty Birbo give a poster presentation about their work on an ongoing project.
I feel lucky to have taken a class on open science from Don Moore and Leif Nelson, which instilled in me an understanding of just how hard it is to accurately replicate a study with only the information written in the methods and results sections of scientific paper. (We've now published a class-wide attempt to replicate some of the scarcity priming literature, here.)
Science is hard! Making it open and collaborative makes it better.
My research has benefitted tremendously from funding to help buy equipment, pay research assistants, and pay participants. Funding sources include:
Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA), UC Berkeley
American Psychological Association (APA)
Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences (ICBS), UC Berkeley
Strandberg Family Foundation, UC Berkeley
Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD)
Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley
Experimental Social Science Laboratory (XLab), UC Berkeley
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP)
Chancellor's Fellowship, UC Berkeley