Psychology undergraduate strives to help families and kids in need

By

Robert Ewing

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Have you ever wondered how infants convert a bunch of different sounds into language? Among all the other sounds a baby hears growing up, how do they know which ones are useful for learning speech?

Emily Smith, who will graduate with a double major in psychology and human development from Arizona State University, completed an honor’s research thesis on just these questions. Smith worked as a researcher in the Learning and Development Lab with Viridiana Benitez, assistant professor of psychology.

The lab studies how young children learn generally. Recently, Benitez and her research team found that toddlers learned new words better when they were in a predictable situation. Smith’s senior research project built on this work, by looking specifically at how interruptions affected word learning.

“Infants have to take in so much information, and we wanted to look at how that information affected the process of word learning,” Smith said.

Her thesis, “The Role of Interruption on Infants’ Fast Mapping Abilities,” examined how word learning can be a fast but fragile process in infants. She presented her research at a poster session in the Department of Psychology and was recently recognized as a finalist for the ASU Department of Psychology Honors Thesis of the Year.

“My senior research project was the first real experience where I applied everything I have learned at ASU. It was a culmination of personal and academic accomplishments, and it feels great to be recognized as one of the top theses in the Department of Psychology,” Smith said. 

The Learning and Development Lab research team interrupted 16-month-olds during a word learning task. The infants were not able to learn a new word when the researchers moved the infants' bodies, like standing them up from a chair, or when there were flashing lights.

Smith was fascinated that learning words could so easily be interrupted by environmental factors, like whether an adult moved the infant.

“Word learning can be so easily disrupted by so many factors,” Smith said.

Smith and Benitez said these results demonstrate that word learning in chaotic environments can be challenging for infants because they do not know where to direct their attention. The findings could also have implication for how young children are taught language.

Benitez said she was thoroughly impressed with Smith’s work.

“It was truly a pleasure to work with Emily on this project. Throughout every step she was driven and insightful,” Benitez said. “With only a little guidance, she dove right into the problem and came up with a creative solution. Her work on the project was truly outstanding, and I have no doubt she will be successful in her next endeavor.”

Question: What made you interested in psychology?

Answer: I have always known I wanted to work with people and learn more about their thoughts and behaviors. I especially wanted to learn about families and child development. Completing a double major in psychology and family and human development has taught me so much about how children and families learn and get along, and how to solve and treat problems when they arise.

Q: What made you choose ASU?

A: I was destined to go here: I have a T-shirt from elementary school that says "Future Sun Devil."

But honestly, ASU offered me great scholarships that made my college education feel so much more accessible and achievable than if I had chosen another school. It was only after I started attending that I learned how many opportunities ASU has and about the mentorship opportunities the professors offer their students.

Q: What was your favorite part of campus?

A: I get nostalgic now walking through Barrett where I lived as a freshman. I love the grounds and the dining hall, and it brings back fun memories with the friends I've made.

Q: What was your favorite class/professor?

A: It's so hard to pick just one! The professors who have had the biggest impact on me were the ones who encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone and be active in my education, including my human event Professor Dr. Mack, my thesis directors and mentors Dr. Benitez and Dr. Glenberg, and my clinical psychology Professor Dr. Davis.

Q: What is the best advice you can give an undergraduate at ASU?

A: Get involved with anything and everything you're interested in. Figuring out what you want to do in life is no easy task, and I realized that finding something that sparked curiosity, joy and excitement wouldn't happen unless I was active in my own personal growth and discovery. Plus, ASU offers literally everything, so you're almost certain to find something you're interested in.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be working as a case manager at a mental health agency in Mesa, working with children and their families to help coordinate services and treatment. I also plan to go to graduate school in a year to become a child clinician or a marriage and family therapist.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem, what would you tackle?

A: I would pour it all into integrated health care or combining the care of mental and physical health into one cohesive system. Mental health and wellness are becoming more widely accepted as important issues for everyone, not just those with mental illness. I think treating mental health as a complement to physical health, rather than as separate, is the next natural step.