During the 2019-2020 year, several early career scientists within PSI were awarded prestigious grants. Even during our current global pandemic, these dedicated researchers worked quickly and capably to move their research forward and adapt to new guidelines.
One example of this excellence is Dr. Stephanie Shire, who was recently awarded an early career research award from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) focused on the use of technology to adapt proven caregiver-mediated interventions for young children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Working closely with Southern Oregon Educational Service District (SOESD), Dr. Shire plans to develop a technology-enabled adaptation of the traditional face-to-face JASPER (Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement and Regulation; Kasari et al., 2006), a social communication intervention program for children with autism. Dr. Shire hopes this adaption will increase the functionality of the intervention so that it can be implemented by SOESD educators during the four year project period to fit within the service structure and practices of SOESD early intervention and early childhood special education services.
The aim is to provide resources and tools to support families with young children who are on the autism spectrum, particularly, those living in rural and remote communities. Through the pilot randomized trial, more will be learned about how children and families will benefit from a stepped approach including online resources and video conferenced coaching. The goal of the intervention is to help caregivers learn strategies to successfully engage their children in play-based activities to help increase children’s communication and play skills.
Funded through an IES early career research and training mechanism, the project also includes a plan of career development activities with mentorship from PSI scientists, Drs. John Seeley and Beth Stormshak with Dr. Daniel Almirall (University of Michigan Ann Arbor). The career development plan will provide opportunities for additional training and mentorship in both implementation science as well as the design of clinical trials to optimize adaptive interventions.
The forward thinking research by Dr. Shire was already heavily incorporating technology into the research design of this grant. Therefore, COVID-19 guidelines disrupted her grant very little. Dr. Shire’s research was already focusing on how technology could improve interventions and strengthen remote delivery of provider training and caregiver coaching.
Dr. Stephanie De Anda also recently received a Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Her grant will follow Spanish-learning toddlers longitudinally from 24 to 36 months of age. The goal is to characterize vocabulary growth over this time period in children with and without early language delays. In addition, the grant seeks to examine the role of dual language learning contexts and caregiver input on early lexical development. The grant takes a multi-dimensional approach to early vocabulary development by measuring a variety of lexical skills using parent report, observations, eye-tracking, and reaction time data among other methods.
Dr. De Anda aims to characterize the precise deficits in early lexical development that lead to persistent language delays across the third year of life in young Latinx children. This period of time is a critical window for language learning. By understanding how lexical skills emerge in children within single and dual language learning environments, Dr. De Anda hopes to inform future intervention approaches that specifically target the processes that lead to persistent delays. In addition, by understanding the role of caregivers in this process, researchers will be better positioned to provide caregiver-mediated recommendations and interventions in future studies.
With a mind for the future, Dr. De Anda hopes to use this grant to support the university’s long-term goal of creating an environment of equity and inclusion. This pursuit is a cause that is at the center of all of her efforts as a scientist, mentor, and faculty member. She feels that the grant affords an opportunity to contribute to a meaningful gap in the research literature, given the continued dearth of research within Latinx populations. Furthermore, this research program will work to provide appropriate assessment procedures and interventions tailored to Latinx infants and toddlers with early language challenges. The grant is a fertile training ground for aspiring student scientists and clinicians who all work on the project. Dr. De Anda will have the opportunity to mentor diverse students, many of whom are Spanish speakers and from Latinx backgrounds.
Dr. De Anda has already begun implementing changes in her research in relation to the COVID-19 guidelines. Not willing to cease delivering the intervention to families when they need it most, Dr. De Anda has pivoted and is piloting new protocols in order to collect behavioral measures remotely. For example, collecting information via online survey instead of in person, and observing family interactions through video conferencing instead of in the lab. In addition, De Anda is currently piloting remote eye-tracking data collection.