Q&A with Laura Kuhn, PhD
Laura Kuhn, PhD, is an advanced research scientist at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, working as a methodologist in the Data Management and Analysis Core (DMAC) and as an investigator studying executive functioning in preschool-aged children. She is originally from Wisconsin, where she currently works remotely, and received her PhD in early childhood education from the UNC School of Education.
What is your role at FPG?
Currently, I am a methodologist with DMAC, and that currently involves supporting other principal investigators on their projects, mostly around study design and data analysis, and I am an investigator with some of my own funded work.
As a methodologist, I'm helping investigators formulate questions into testable hypotheses and coming up with the best strategies in terms of sampling sophistication, and in terms of analyses to answer their questions. As an investigator, my work is really focused on executive function in preschool-aged children, which includes their abilities around things like attention, working memory, and inhibitory control. Of course, these abilities are really different throughout the ages—a 3-year-old is very different from a 15-year-old, but these skills develop over the life course and don't really become fully developed until the early 20s. From that work, I've gone into areas around precursors to executive function. Specifically, I've been looking at language. As kids are learning how to speak, the cognitive processes that enable language might also be important for emerging executive function. I have another grant looking at the contribution of preschool teachers' language and how that might help scaffold children's language, and in turn, their executive function as they go from the preschool period into the transition to kindergarten. Obviously, we know language in early childhood is really important, and I think there are some missing gaps in our knowledge in terms of how learning to communicate translates to other skills. There are a lot of untested questions there.
What was your path to FPG?
I came to North Carolina after finishing a master's degree in experimental psychology in Wisconsin, and I luckily fell into being a data collector on the Family Life Project, which is an important longitudinal birth-cohort study of Lynne Vernon-Feagan's that has been going on at FPG for years. I was lucky enough to come on in the very beginning of the project, and I got to start at the hospitals recruiting moms to be in the study. Then I got to do the very early assessments with these kids at 2 months and 6 months, and it was really interesting work. Lynne was a great mentor and supported me in going back to graduate school for a PhD at the School of Education. It also happened that while I was in graduate school, I was a research assistant on a project helping to develop a measure of executive function and that work closely matched my own research interests, and I transitioned back to FPG after graduation in 2012.
FPG has given me so many great opportunities. With the Family Life Project, I got to see a different cultural context from what I was used to. There's poverty everywhere, but I do feel like rural poverty is a little bit different in a lot of ways. Being in these homes and seeing the families, I really became interested in family context and how it is different than what we think of in terms of poverty. In some ways these families are isolated, but they have a lot of familial, multigenerational support around them. On the other hand, they also have less access to resources like preschool centers, for example, because everything is more remote and more difficult to get to. It led us to think about how cognition develops and what kinds of language they're getting exposed to. In some ways, I think it was richer because you have these closer family ties, grandparents close by, lots of cousins around. So, I really became interested in this idea of what's happening with these kids. What are their experiences like? What kind of supports are they getting that might be different from what we think of in terms of poverty? Because I was working with Lynne and had this interest in language and how language might be different in different contexts, that's how I came up with my own program of research around these questions.
The other piece is how I became a methodologist. When I was getting my PhD, it became important to me to think about the best ways to answer these questions in terms of a study design perspective. I had a background in experimental psychology, and then I was thinking through details like, 'What is the data collection protocol? What kind of questions can you answer with that? What variables are you manipulating? What is the context?' I needed more of a background in methodology and statistics because I felt like, in order to develop my research questions, I needed to understand these things, so I did a minor in quantitative psychology as part of my PhD.
What excites you about FPG?
In a million years, I would have never thought that, if I took this job as a data collector, that I would have gone on to do my PhD and put it all together. It led me to all these steppingstones to where I am today and the work I'm doing with DMAC. This is what excites me about FPG, the ability to work with the experts, the top people in their fields right now. I've gotten a chance to collaborate with those people on their research studies, and I get to bring a different lens to their work and help support them. I feel like I get to contribute my own methodological expertise and my own research. There's definitely a commonality because we're all looking at early childhood. But I've had the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of different people on different projects that aren't my research areas, but are within my broad content area, so I get to work on developing my own skills and think through, conceptually, how can I help this team come up with the best strategies to answer the questions they want to ask.
What do you look forward to about the future of the work you do?
Within my own work, I'm excited about continuing to examine precursors to executive functioning, and I'm really becoming interested in children who may be vulnerable to executive function deficits. I've started to think about kids in different situations, like those with cochlear implants who might have language impairment in some way. We have a lot of great people at FPG within the autism spectrum disorder research community, so I hope to collaborate with them and think about kids who might have different needs for various reasons and think about how their language development may be different, how that might impact their executive function, and if there might be different areas of intervention for them. We're also starting to think about not just environmental exposures, but also brain development. That's a new area for me. I hope we'll be able to collect data with these kids and see if we can map some of the things that we're seeing in terms of the language input they're receiving in the home and examine what that might mean for their brain development. Luckily, we have a lot of resources and great collaborators at FPG that I feel like I can hopefully learn from and, at some point, become proficient in these techniques myself.
With DMAC, I'm excited about how we're growing, and this is a really exciting period to be involved in with them. We're not only growing our staff, but we're diversifying our expertise, including colleagues from different areas, whether that's sociology or nutrition or biostatistics. With a statistics background, this is really interesting because it opens up a whole new world in terms of what really are the best ways to answer a research question. We all have slightly different backgrounds, but often the question is the same in terms of what is best for children.