Developmental Science

Baby

The Developmental Science Research Group comprises faculty and students interested in understanding the processes and mechanisms of developmental change, from infancy through adolescence. We seek to understand change over both short and long timescales, and how interactions at all levels of the developing system produce change. We use multiple research paradigms, including naturalistic observations, experimental methods, computational modeling, virtual reality, and neuroimaging techniques. Our research interests span language, cognition, social communication, working memory, cognitive control, executive function, and sensory-motor and perception-action systems. We study development from infancy through adolescence in both typically and atypically developing children, as well as in hon-human animals. We represent a broad range of theoretical viewpoints, including embodiment, connectionism, ecological psychology, and developmental systems theory. 

Our research group is also integral to the DeLTA Center at the University of Iowa, an interdisciplinary research center devoted to understanding the processes of learning and development from multiple perspectives. The DeLTA Center draws from departments and colleges across campus, including Psychological and Brain Sciences, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Computer Science, Medicine, and Education. DeLTA Center members embrace the complexity of development and the challenges inherent in understanding the emergence of new skills over time. We are also committed to translating insights beyond the laboratory, recognizing that translation is most impactful when guided by an understanding of developmental process.

Specialized graduate training in Developmental Science can be pursued through any of our graduate training areas (Behavioral & Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognition, or Clinical Science). Once accepted into the graduate program, students and their mentors design individualized, student-centered programs of study that best fit the student's interests and future career objectives. Potential applicants are encouraged to contact potential faculty mentors for further information about applying to the program. 

The Developmental Science Research Group is closely aligned with the Developmental Psychopathology Research Group, which focuses on understanding the origins, course, and mechanisms of adaptive and maladaptive developmental trajectories and pathways. Students with interests in developmental psychopathology should contact potential mentors for more information about opportunities for graduate study.

Participating Developmental Science faculty and their interests are described below: 

Mark Blumberg studies the development, neural control, and functional significance of sleep. He uses behavioral, neurophysiological, neuroanatomical, and genetic approaches to help us understand why young organisms sleep so much and why sleep is important for development. This work focuses on the special role that twitching during REM sleep plays in the organization of the developing sensorimotor system. His current research uses infant rats and mice, as well as human infants.

Susan Wagner Cook studies hand gestures produced during communication. Her research examines the role that viewing and producing hand gestures play in how children learn to solve problems and remember information, for example, when learning how to solve math problems. Her work draws on an embodiment perspective that emphasizes how human thinking emerges from the interaction of abstract, symbolic structures and visible, bodily behavior. She uses eye-tracking and behavioral paradigms including studies with a virtual avatar, as well as studies of patient populations with focal brain lesions (e.g., amnesic patients).

Ece Demir-Lira studies how neural plasticity and parental input work together to shape children’s cognitive and language development. She studies how these processes operate in typically-developing children, children with early focal brain injury, as well as in children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Her work focuses on understanding how brain and environmental mechanisms interact to produce specific developmental patterns in children’s academic achievement, including math learning and narrative skills. This work relies on a combination of behavioral (e.g. naturalistic observations) and neuroimaging techniques (e.g., fMRI, fNIRS).

Kai Hwang studies brain network mechanisms of cognitive control and its developmental process during childhood and adolescence. His work focuses on the role of the thalamocortical system and its developmental trajectory. A closely related theme is the study of neural oscillations (“brain rhythms”), and how neural oscillations support cognitive control throughout development. This work uses a variety of methods, including fMRI, TMS, MEG, EEG, resting-state and task-based connectivity analyses, graph analyses, classical cognitive and oculomotor paradigms, and studies of patients with focal cortical or subcortical lesions.

Bob McMurray studies language and reading in children and adults. This work focuses on the role of speech processing in recognizing spoken and written words, and how interactions among components of the system over time produce change in language processing skills.  Much of his work examines children with atypical trajectories, such as children with developmental language disability, children with reading disability, and adults and children who face hearing loss and use cochlear implants. His work combines behavioral techniques like eye-tracking and cognitive neuroscientific techniques (EEG) to study a range of developmental outcomes.

Jodie Plumert studies how children and adults perceive, act, and think in the context of everyday problems such as finding missing objects and crossing busy roads. Her work on children’s road crossing brings together both basic and applied research questions related to the development of the perception-action-cognition system. This research focuses on how the ability to tightly link decisions and actions changes with development, and on the mechanisms underlying individual and developmental differences in movement timing skills. Her research uses immersive virtual reality technology to study these processes in vivo (e.g., crossing roads with virtual traffic), as well as typically- and atypically (e.g., children with ADHD) developing populations.

Unique coursework: Our distinctive coursework gives students strong training in 21st century developmental science and provides the foundation for a cutting-edge, theory-based understanding of development that can bridge from laboratory experiments to real-world problems. Our innovative proseminar organizes developmental science by core mechanisms (e.g., learning, endogenous activity, caregiver-mediated learning) rather than by domain, to stress similarity in mechanisms across neurological, motor, social, perceptual, and cognitive development. Students can also take courses on developmental cognitive neuroscience, applied developmental science, and a variety of content areas. 

Proven success: Our graduates have a track record of success. Each year our students present at many national conferences and publish many first-authored papers. Our students have also won national awards such as the Society for Research in Child Development Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award, the Council of Graduate Schools/University Microfilms International Distinguished Dissertation Award in Social Sciences, and the American Psychological Association Dissertation Award in Developmental Psychology. This success translates into first-rate post-doctoral training opportunities and tenure-track jobs at excellent universities including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Sussex University in the UK, the University of Alabama, University of Miami, University of Tennessee, and Loyola University-Chicago.

An active research community: Researchers in the Developmental Science Research Group have a proven track record of success, consistently garnering significant grant funding and publishing many research articles each year. We are the only program nationally with back-to-back winners of the APA’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology in the area of Developmental Psychology (with three such awards total).

Resources: Our students have access to the latest methodological innovations including functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), advanced developmental psychobiology techniques, infant looking and listening procedures, automated eye-tracking, immersive virtual reality technology, and cutting-edge computational techniques.

Hank Lab simulator

E-mail: susan-cook@uiowa.edu
Office phone: 319-384-1815
Mailing address: Dept. of Psychological & Brain Sciences, W311 Seashore Hall, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52

Affiliated Faculty

Joseph Kearney, Computer Science
J. Bruce Tomblin, Communication Sciences & Disorders