Benjamin Building

New COE Faculty Awarded Prestigious NIH Grant

Assistant Professor Rachel Romeo

When incoming faculty member Rachel Romeo arrives at COE, she’ll kickstart her research with the help of the prestigious National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence award providing approximately $1 million in funding. Dr. Romeo, who is currently serving as visiting faculty at COE while completing postdoctoral research at Harvard University, will use the K99/R00 grant funding to study how early childhood experiences influence cognitive and neural development as she transitions to fulltime faculty in early 2022. Her work will examine the ways in which socioeconomic differences in early childhood, such as inequalities in family income, impact child development and academic success.

“We know that socioeconomic disparities can have a profound effect on children’s academic and cognitive development, and we want to understand how this happens in order to best support children’s outcomes,” Dr. Romeo said.

The NIH award helps facilitate the transition from postdoctoral research to independent research positions such as university faculty roles, and is split into two parts: the K99 and R00 phases. Currently, Dr. Romeo is studying the role of language experience on neurocognitive development in children from 3 to 14 years as part of the K99 phase—providing up to $250K over two years—awarded to postdoctoral fellows.

Historically, the field has emphasized studying the number of words spoken between children and adults. But Dr. Romeo is interested in the interactive components of conversation between adults and children, and how those factors relate to cognitive and neural development later in childhood.

“We’re looking at the non-linguistic pieces, the interactions between adults and children and the concepts they’re discussing, and tracking how that relates to not just their language development, but also their socioemotional development, self-regulation skills, and executive functioning, which we know are important for success in school,” Dr. Romeo said.

Come spring 2022, as COE fulltime faculty, Dr. Romeo will transition to the R00 funding phase—250K/year for three years—and increase her focus on neural dynamics in the preschool period, ages 3-5. Language experience in preschool relates to brain systems that support language development, Dr. Romeo said. The research will consider how language experience might also support other cognition domains important for school readiness, such as social cognition and executive functioning.

Using brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging and near-infrared spectroscopy, the research will study how language experiences relate to neural cognitive development and the building of different brain regions. Moreover, whereas much of the K99 portion of the work took place in the lab, Dr. Romeo wants to study interactions in the home environment using audio recorders that children wear during the R00 research phase. With these “little language pedometers,” Dr. Romeo hopes to record robust, naturalistic measures of children’s language experience in the real world throughout their day.

“Our goal is to get something much more ecologically valid that is more comprehensively measuring the child’s experiences in the real world,” Dr. Romeo remarked.

Families participating in the research get to learn about their own language environment, too. The researchers provide language data to the families and give children pictures of their brain. Dubbed the “the coolest thing ever,” by kids involved in the research, the pictures not only get posted on the fridge, but they help expose kids to science early in life, especially those in the study from backgrounds underrepresented in scientific fields, Dr. Romeo said. And helping families is the ultimate goal of Dr. Romeo’s work in brain development and language.

“By trying to understand the mechanisms by which our experiences affect our development, it helps us understand how to develop interventions, social programs and educational strategies, and how to support families best,” Dr. Romeo remarked.

Dr. Romeo is completing postdoctoral work at Harvard University with developmental cognitive neuroscientist Katie McLaughlin. Dr. Romeo is currently visiting faculty at COE, and starting in early 2022, Dr. Romeo will become full-time faculty at COE as an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology. She will also have a courtesy appointment in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and in the Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Sciences in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.