Q&A with Julia Leonard, Graduate Student in MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Steve Nelson

Julia Leonard recently completed her PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences (Course 9), exploring how the social environment shapes children’s brain development, cognition, and motivation. She received her BA from Wesleyan University, where she studied Neuroscience and Behavior. Prior to graduate school, she spent two years as a research assistant in John Gabrieli’s lab at MIT. Julia decided to stay at MIT for graduate school because it is one of the few places where people are interested not only in conducting rigorous basic scientific research, but also in translating that research into practice and policy to impact people’s lives.

What is one of the biggest challenges facing educators today?

There are many, but I’ll highlight two big challenges. 1) Home environment: many children experience difficulties in school because of a lack of stability and resources in their home environments, often due to systemic problems related to housing and food insecurity, and overburdened caregivers. While this challenge is somewhat outside of the classroom teacher’s purview, it points to the necessity of supporting children’s holistic development. 2) Differences in individual children’s experience and skills. Teachers are faced with classrooms filled with anywhere from 20-35 children who are at different levels of academic proficiency and social development, each with unique interests, moods, and attention spans. It is the teacher’s job to get to know each student so that they can support learning in a way that is best for the individual. Researchers studying individualized approaches to learning are excited to partner with teachers to address some of these difficult challenges.

What are some of the things being done in your lab to help make education more effective?

With Dr. John Gabrieli, I have worked on projects studying how growing up in households of different socioeconomic-status (SES) shapes children’s brain development and cognition. This work focuses on the first challenge to education I mentioned above: low-resourced home environments. Many researchers, including our group, have found that children from lower-SES backgrounds perform worse on measures of cognition and academic achievement than their higher-SES peers, and this disparity is associated with neural differences. My work focuses on how children uniquely adapt to fit their environment. I have found that some cognitive and neural structures don't differ by SES and that the neural correlates of successful cognition actually vary by children’s SES. In other words, the way the brain supports strong cognition in children from lower-SES backgrounds actually differs from the way the brain supports strong cognition in children from higher-SES backgrounds. This research is in its infancy, but the hope is that educators and researchers will use this knowledge to build effective interventions that work with individual’s unique strengths by environmental context to promote success in school and in life.

With Dr. Laura Schulz (Early Childhood Cognition Lab), I have worked on projects looking at how children decide to stick with a challenge. This work focuses on the second challenge to education I mentioned above: individual differences in the realm of motivation. We found that children try harder on their own task after watching an adult try hard and succeed on a separate task. This effect is amplified if the adult practices what they preach: explicitly stating that they value effort or cheering the child on while also demonstrating their own effortful success. We are hoping to explore how adults’ modeling of effort, in conjunction with their messages, impact children’s motivation “in the wild”. The larger goal of this work is to understand what sources of evidence children pay attention to when deciding to persevere in order to boost children’s effort when it matters most.

What do you hope to do after graduate school?

This Fall I will be starting a postdoctoral position as a Mindcore Fellow at University of Pennsylvania working with Drs. Allyson Mackey and Angela Duckworth on better characterizing individual differences in children’s persistence.  We will be exploring how children’s decisions to stick with a challenge depend on environmental factors, such as parents’ and educators’ actions and messages, home routine, etc., as well as internal factors like mood, interest, and sensitivity to evidence. I also hope to translate some of the research findings related to persistence from my graduate career at MIT into real-world interventions.

What is your favorite thing about being at MIT?

I have so valued the opportunity to encounter motivated and talented scholars each day I study how the social environment impacts children’s learning and being a researcher here has provided me with a ‘meta’ experience where I often reflect upon how the social environment of MIT has vastly shaped my own development. My friends and colleagues at MIT have inspired me to be a better scientist, thinker, and citizen – it is truly a unique place and I feel so fortunate to have spent many formative years here.