UMass Boston

UMass Boston Researchers Receive Grant from NIH to Study Memory in Young Children

01/06/2021| Danielle Bilotta

UMass Boston Professors of Psychology Zsuzsa Kaldy and Erik Blaser were awarded a three-year, $457,061 R15 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support their work studying the role of effort in visual working memory in infants and young toddlers.

From left: Graduate student Mollie Hamilton, staff member Sangya Dhungana, Dr. Zsuzsa Kaldy, and graduate student Yibiao Liang in the Baby Lab

“ We always tell the parents that this is their child’s first campus tour. ”

Kaldy and Blaser have been studying memory in children for over 17 years with UMass Boston and the UMass Boston Baby Lab. Their research focuses on understanding how babies’ and toddlers’ minds develop and how they learn about the world around them. This project will investigate how working memory develops between the ages of three and four using behavioral and physiological methods, including eye-tracking and pupillometry. 

“Memory is a very complex phenomenon, but we are studying one aspect of it which is not what people typically think of memory,” Kaldy said. “It’s not long-term memory. It’s what’s called ‘working memory’ which is what you can keep in your mind in a given moment.” 

Kaldy and Blaser said that studying babies at this prelinguistic stage of development gives them a unique opportunity to see what our species is like early on and provides insight into how children’s memories develop when they start going to school.

Undergrad Elicia Kelley interacts with a toddler in the Baby Lab

“There’s natural curiosity about what’s going on in a baby’s mind,” Blaser said. “You’re interested in those things in adults also, but an adult’s mind is muddled up with trying to reflect on how you do things, and you strategize in different ways, so you can’t get to the pure things anymore because of all these other layers.” 

Kaldy said they’ve started part of the study but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their research has had a slow start. The lab partially reopened in July following all safety procedures that are required and recommended, and she hopes in-person participation will pick back up in the spring.  

“At this stage, we’re mostly in a holding pattern,” Kaldy said. “But the university was very supportive of our efforts because we wanted to continue our work. Science doesn’t stop just because data collection is hard.” 

Some of their other projects, such as tests that measure reaction times with adults, can be done remotely, but other parts of the research must be done in person in the lab because it requires specialized pieces of equipment, Blaser said.  

“The technology is not there yet to do it any other way than people coming in,” Blaser said. “The pupillometry is all based on a camera watching the face. In the laboratory, we are using special equipment with infrared lights, high-resolution recording, and controlled light levels and at home, it’s just not possible to guarantee that level of control.”  

The R15 grant is a research grant, but its main goal is to enhance research infrastructure and to open training opportunities for undergraduate students who are underrepresented in biomedical sciences. A large part of the student population at UMass Boston meets those requirements and there are currently two students working with the research team on this grant, one of them, Jasmine Love, did her work as part of a Directed Study (Psych 488) in Psychology, Kaldy said. 

“These students, the 10-12 that work in our lab in an academic year, are all getting course credit for this and we are doing the research in partnership with them,” Blaser said. “They can have that experience and that training and mentorship for when they go on to apply to graduate school and beyond. This is the kind of laboratory-based experience that is part-funded by NIH and is an essential component to being competitive for PhD programs and some master’s programs, too.” 

The three-year grant provides more opportunities for student involvement with the UMass Boston Baby Lab, which has also created a different kind of community engagement since participants come in with their families, many of whom may never have come to the campus otherwise, Blaser said. 

“We always tell the parents that this is their child’s first campus tour,” Kaldy said.