Dr. Ariel Starr recently joined the Psychology Department as an Assistant Professor in the Autumn of 2019 in the area of Developmental Psychology. We recently had the chance to speak with her about her research.
How did you become interested in Developmental Psychology and more specifically how language interacts with other cognitive abilities during human development?
In high school I read The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker and became interested in how language influences thought. Then in college I started working in a lab that studies how children learn the meaning of number words. I realized that studying how children learn language provides the opportunity to study both how learning language changes thought, but also how children’s early language use sheds light on their existing cognitive processes. I’ve been studying cognitive development ever since.
It is an exciting time in the Department of Psychology to be starting a research lab, what projects or areas of research are you excited to pursue?
The first projects we’ve started in the Language, Cognition, & Development Lab involve investigating memory development. The building blocks of episodic memory are “what,” “where,” and “when.” The “when” part seems to be most difficult for children and is the slowest to develop; it is also the part that is least common in non-human animals. This may be because time is relatively abstract – we cannot directly experience it. One way that cultures may make it easier to think about time is to think about time in terms of space. For example, we use calendars that arrange the passage of time from left-to-right, and we can say things like, “I’m looking forward to winter break” or “I’m glad the fall quarter is behind us.” In our studies, we are exploring how these types of spatiotemporal associations may help children (and adults) keep track of the order of when things happened. We are also exploring how children’s understanding of temporal words like “today,” “tomorrow,” and “yesterday” influences temporal memory. Next quarter we will begin studying the origins of temporal memory in infants.
Your current research involves the use of behavioral and eye-tracking methodologies with infants and children to answer questions about the development of memory, language, numerical cognition, and abstract concepts. How have these relatively new technologies helped advance research in your field of developmental psychology? How has your research benefited from incorporating these methodologies?
There are many things about eye tracking that I’m excited about! One is that because eye movements are naturally occurring all the time, they can provide a window into cognition. For example, by comparing the eye movements that children versus adults make while solving a visual puzzle, we can see how problem-solving strategies change over development. Eye tracking and pupillometry (changes in pupil dilation) are also very helpful for investigating infant cognition. Because babies don’t yet talk and can’t explicitly tell us what they are thinking, we can use their eye movements and pupil dilation to make inferences about how they are thinking about the world. Also, because eye movements and changes in pupil dilation occur spontaneously, these types of metrics can be used with infants, children, and adults to study how cognitive processes are changing throughout the lifespan.
What classes are you excited to be teaching? Any other classes that our psychology undergraduate students look forward to take with you?
I’m looking forward to teaching classes on cognitive development to both graduate and undergraduate students. I’m particularly excited to help students think about doing developmental research as not just as a way to learn about children but also as a method for tackling larger questions in psychology. Where do concepts come from? How does language shape thought? What cognitive abilities may be unique to humans?
Dr. Katerine "Kate" Foster joined the Department of Psychology in the area of Child Clinical Psychology as an Assistant Professor in the Autumn of 2019. We recently had a chance to interview one of newest faculty members and ask her about her research and interests.
We are excited to have you as a new faculty member in the Departments of Psychology and Global Health. Can you tell us more about the research that you are planning to pursue?
I’m incredibly excited and grateful to be here and I appreciate the warm welcome I’ve gotten from everyone! My research applies person-centered approaches to understanding heterogeneity in mental health. Through projects utilizing a variety of ambulatory assessment techniques (e.g., biosensors, passive phone data, and self-report via smartphone), I plan to capture granular, day-to-day variation in a broad array of biopsychosocial factors involved in the mental health of individual adults and children, as well as within families. Using these data, we will model how dynamic changes within-individuals and within-families contribute to between-person and between-family differences in mental health challenges like anxiety and depression and health risk behavior like alcohol and drug use. An extension of this work will involve testing the benefit of providing feedback from real-time, personalized data analysis for guiding self-directed behavior change.
With this work, I have three overarching goals: (1) to understand both unique and common origins, trajectories, and outcomes of psychopathology and health risk behavior over the lifespan, (2) to improve translation of clinical science evidence to case-specific applications (i.e., assessment and intervention across diverse individuals) with maximal personalization and precision, and (3) to advance scalable implementation methods that reduce barriers to effective mental health support (e.g., stigma, affordability, accessibility, need for expert adaptation) at the individual level across diverse communities.
How did you become interested in such diverse areas of research such as Developmental Psychopathology, Clinical Heterogeneity and Global Mental Health?
In my first year of graduate school, a mentor of mine said in passing that “heterogeneity” is a dirty word in psychology – that to even suspect that effects may not be largely uniform across individuals (while likely correct) is fundamentally threatening to our enterprise of finding common “causes”.
Naturally, what followed is that I’ve developed a perverse obsession with heterogeneity. I saw heterogeneity regularly in my data – when the model predicted curves I fit tracking depression symptoms across the lifespan looked compelling but also occluded unsettling variability in trajectories of individual people. I saw heterogeneity regularly in my clinical practice – when I finished treating my tenth patient with alcohol use disorder (using the same evidence-based approach for everyone!) and noticed in the outcome data that no two people had followed the same course after initiating treatment.
The greatest challenge I’ve faced in trying to understand sources of heterogeneity is that ignoring it comes at an especially high premium and paying attention to it is especially challenging. Using the frameworks of developmental psychopathology and global mental health have been instrumental in keeping my work grounded in the pragmatics of the problem: how do problems change the course of peoples’ lives and how can we develop methods that efficiently, specifically, and affordably (!) mitigate those very personal changes across as many diverse people and communities as possible.
Why is your research important? Why should the community care?
Given the relatively high lifetime incidence rate of some psychopathology symptoms (e.g., anxiety, depression, and alcohol use problems), it is likely that every person in our community has either experienced or knows at least one person who faces mental health challenges. Astonishingly, even when an individual receives the best mental health treatment available (including both pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy) remission of symptoms can occur less than 50% of the time, likely due to heterogeneity in the risk factors, consequences, and treatment needs of each patient.
My research on heterogeneity is aimed at improving rates of remission by personalizing mental health assessment and intervention. Ensuring that each individual is getting the care that’s right for them at the right time is critical for mitigating and even preventing the debilitating personal, interpersonal, and societal consequences of these symptoms.
What classes are you planning to teach in Psychology and Global Health?
In the coming years, I will be teaching a graduate-level seminar course on idiographic research methods as well as undergraduate- and graduate-level seminars on developmental psychopathology. I’m also excited about the possibility of teaching methods courses within the context of the global mental health program as well.