Assistant research professor in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department Elika Bergelson received a $1.25M grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to research language development in babies.

“I feel very excited and totally shocked,” Bergelson said of the Early Independence Award. She explained that she did not expect her research in social sciences to be recognized, as the award has typically been given out for natural-science research.

The NIH website states that the award’s goal is “to provide a mechanism for exceptional early career scientists to move rapidly into independent research positions at U.S. institutions by essentially omitting the traditional post-doctoral training period.”

According to Bergelson, her interest in language development comes from her upbringing, as her parents are Russian and her siblings were all born in Israel. She said the exposure to the acquisition of so many languages sparked her interest in the difference between early and later language development.

The goal of Bergelson’s impending research is to understand how babies manage to absorb languages better than older people from the babies’ own perspective. To do so, researchers will go into the homes of the subjects and use cameras attached to headbands to see what the babies see. They will also record the sounds and speech that the babies hear, thus analyzing the relationship between what is seen and what is heard so as to relate it back to the learning of words.

The babies experiences will be recorded for an hour once a month for a year, while the babies are between the ages of six months and 18 months. The desired sample size is about 50 families. Families will be recruited through the Rochester Babylab database. Bergelson said the goal is to have all participants within six to ten months.

There will also be an in-lab portion in which researchers will use eye-tracking devices to follow what babies look at when certain basic words are said. Basic words will be compared to words that are unique to each individual baby’s home life, which will be observed from the videos.

The grant money will go toward Bergelson’s salary, eye trackers and other equipment, and attendance of various conferences.

The grant is for five years. The project will involve about two years of data collection, as not all babies will be observed simultaneously, and three years of analyzing and interpreting results for publication. Bergelson said it is exciting to think that other researchers in the field will be able to pull from her own findings.

“One of the goals I think is kind of cool is to share all of this data,” Bergelson said. “Then you can imagine that somebody else will find something useful.” She continued, “I think that’s a direction that research is heading in and that social media is heading in. Everybody shares everything all the time, so  it’s nice to imagine that other people could get use out of the stuff you do.”

Bergelson commented on research opportunities at UR.

“[UR] is a really great place to do research,” she said, noting that the University is especially strong in the areas of vision and language development and processing. She also explained what she feels is valuable about scientific research.

“I think in some ways it’s more fascinating because when you’re involved with science research you’re able to learn new things about the universe that you didn’t know before,” Bergelson said.

Speaking more specifically about the social sciences, Bergelson commented, “It has to do with people and finding out new ways to see how we think about and perceive the world, and I’m excited to be able to do that with infants and families here in Rochester.”

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