This past summer, I worked as a research assistant in the Developing Minds Lab under advisor Dr. Elizabeth Brannon. Our lab is primarily a numerical cognition lab; this means we study how children develop a sense of numbers and how this understanding changes over time. The research is intended to inform primary school math curricula to better harness children’s innate math skills. As a research assistant, I had the opportunity to work on multiple projects under different researchers.
In particular, I focused on three studies: one on how children learn to order numbers, another on how children allocate their resources, and another on where “number words” are localized in the brain with fMRI technology. My tasks varied each day. In addition to completing office work at the lab, I conducted behavioral testing at schools and museums, helped run fMRIs, edited video game tasks, and completed basic coding for data analysis.
The experience taught me a variety of research skills. First, I learned how to conduct data collection with human subjects. I discovered the protections in place to guard confidential information and the measures needed to ensure continued consent/assent. I became familiar with how the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Penn reviews proposals, and I learned the steps needed to bring a study from initial brainstorm to final dataset. Additionally, I gained experience with the MRI machine. I learned how it works and reviewed safety protocols. The lab even allowed me to be a participant and experience the study myself. I gained first-hand experience with the difficulties of imaging young children; I learned the importance of keeping kids still in the bore and ultimately saw unpredictable results compared to adults. Finally, I gained experience running tasks in MATLAB and learned some basic coding in MATLAB and R for data analysis.
This fall, I am continuing my work in the lab. We will be piloting an updated version of the child fMRI study on adults. The new task will be “active,” meaning that participants will make responses to stimuli in the scanner. Hopefully, this task will keep kids focused and allow for more reliable data. Once we get results from the pilot, we’ll be able to improve the program and create our final task. I’m excited for the coming months.