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October 29, 2014

‘Exceptional’ Young Researcher Explores the Mystery of Baby Language

Elika Bergelson

Elika Bergelson, a research assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, has received a $1.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore how babies acquire language. The NIH has recognized Bergelson as an “exceptional early career scientist” by naming her as one of this year’s 17 Early Independence Award recipients.

The award, introduced in 2011, was designed to facilitate the careers of talented junior scientists by providing “an opportunity to start highly innovative research programs as early in their careers as possible.” The Early Independence Award will provide $250,000 a year, for five years to support Bergelson’s research.

“This program allows researchers to propose highly creative research projects across a broad range of biomedical and behavioral research areas that involve inherent risk but have the potential to lead to dramatic breakthroughs,” says NIH Director Francis Collins.

Bergelson, focuses on the understanding of how babies between six and to 18 months old learn words from the visual, social, and linguistic world around them.

“We do this from the baby’s own perspective,” Bergelson says. “I like to say babies are made of magic. The rate they learn their native language is astounding. In this project we’re trying to figure out some piece of that magic.”

Richard Aslin, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, noted that Bergelson’s work is unique in that it combines well-controlled studies in the lab that assess what words infants know, with in-the-home audio and video recordings of what words infants hear, and what they see when they hear these words.

Aslin, who serves as Bergelson’s mentor, is the founder and codirector of the Rochester Baby Lab, where Bergelson will carry out her research. Since 1984 the Baby Lab has been used to facilitate research studies in many different areas of inquiry with children from four months to seven years old. “Elika’s research ideas complement and extend research that has been a focus of the lab for many years,” he says.

The goal, Bergelson says, is to do this first project with typically- developing infants, to get a solid baseline data, so that in future work researchers can extend it to other populations, like infants at risk for language delay.

Bergelson has previously been awarded several National Science Foundation and NIH research grants and fellowships, including an NIH Post Doctoral Fellowship at the University’s Center for Language Sciences.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Bergelson earned a bachelor’s degree at New York University, completed postbaccalaureate research at the University of Maryland, and earned her PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

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