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Using curiosity to build resilience in children

Paola Hernandez receives prestigious scholarship to support her research

Portrait of ASU student Paola Hernandez.

Paola Hernandez hopes to use the Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship to further her work in helping children through the development of curiosity and resilience.

November 10, 2022

While in high school, Paola Hernandez worked as a nurse aide at a local hospital in Texas, a state where, according to a 2022 report by the Texas Care for Children, from 2009 to 2019, there was a 35% increase in the number of high school students who reported that they attempted suicide, and over 3,000 children are on waitlists with reported extensive mental health care needs that aren’t being met.

Hernandez saw the need for psychiatric assistance for younger patients first-hand at the hospital where she worked. That experience sparked an interest in helping children with adverse childhood experiences and traumas.

“I wanted to learn more about the preventative measures that can be taken,” Hernandez said. “There is so much we can do to help build resilience in young children who have experienced trauma or adversity.”

Today, as a psychology major at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, Hernandez is channeling that early influence into research. She was recently awarded the Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship, which she hopes to use to explore how curiosity can help children's mental health.

Hernandez joined the Emerging Minds Lab with Assistant Professor Kelsey Lucca, an NSF Early Career Award winner, to better understand the impact of childhood trauma on curiosity and resilience. The lab conducts research investigating how infants and young children learn about the world around them, with a primary focus on curiosity. 

“It is so important to work with young children, because their minds are still developing. This is why it's so crucial to start therapy and start those prevention methods at that time, because once the brain fully develops, it's a lot harder to work on those areas. When you can build right at the beginning, it helps to set them up with resources, coping mechanisms and things that they can do while they're growing up,” Hernandez said. 

Hernandez is currently developing her thesis based on research that she’s been assisting with at the lab on parent-infant interactions during playtime and how that promotes resilience and curiosity. Specifically, she is interested in how parents introduce new toys to children. 

“Paola joined our lab through ASU’s ENERGIZE program. A graduate student mentor helped Paola match with a lab that shared her interests,” said Lucca. “Since arriving in our lab, Paola has been working on a project exploring early curiosity and persistence in young infants. Paola has a long-standing interest in children’s resilience, and in her thesis project, she is exploring the origins of resilience by testing how infants react to new challenges.”

In her study, the "challenging task" Hernandez is figuring out is how a novel toy works to promote a child's curiosity. She developed a new coding protocol called “PICE” (parents’ role in infant curiosity through exploration) that captures both how parents introduce a novel toy to their infants and how infants subsequently interact with and explore that toy. 

The parents and children play together for five minutes and then a new toy is introduced, enabling the child to explore. The lab doesn’t prompt the parents on how they should interact with the children, and this enables the lab to watch how the parents engage with their child. 

“We want to know: Do they ask questions? Do they describe the toy? Do they kind of put it aside? Are they very involved in the play session? Do they kind of just sit back and watch? All of these are important to understand for us to see how that affects the infant’s exploration. Do they explore more when their parent is more engaged or when their parents are just observing?” said Hernandez.

The lab is in the coding stages of this research project and hopes to better understand this question as their project continues. 

“The findings from Paola’s research will be used to provide new insights into how caregivers can support children in overcoming challenges at the very earliest stages of development. Paola has been collaborating with her graduate student mentor, Nayen Lee, on this project, and together they submitted an abstract for this project to the upcoming Society for Research in Child Development conference,” said Lucca. 

Since joining the lab, Hernandez has also been an active member of the ENERGIZE program and has helped mentor new students to learn about research opportunities, similar to her experience a few years ago. 

“Last spring, our lab, together with the ENERGIZE team, co-hosted our inaugural “Who Wants to be a Researcher?” trivia night — an event for undergraduates designed to showcase research happening across the department. Paola was the co-host of this event and served as an undergraduate student panelist, alongside graduate student Jeri Sasser and my lab’s former lab manager, Sarah Kiefer, who is now a PhD student in psychology at Brown University,” said Lucca.

This experience in the research environment opened Hernandez’s eyes to what possibilities were out there.

“Research comes with a lot of trial and error. Everything is constantly changing, and you are always realizing new things after coding the data,” said Hernandez. “It has really prepared me for graduate school knowing that everything doesn’t have to be perfect, and you often learn the most from the times when things aren’t going the way you expected them to.”

Hernandez travels from Mesa to conduct her research in the lab, and the funding from the Shapiro scholarship enables her to pursue research without needing to find an additional job to pay for the transportation. 

The Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship provides funding up to $5,000 for underrepresented students to pursue research in a psychology research lab. The scholarship was created with the awareness that ENERGIZE students may face financial challenges that preclude their ability to take advantage of research opportunities.

“Since I'm currently doing research on curiosity, it would be really fun to kind of tie that into the graduate school research I want to do on trauma, adversity and resilience. I've always really been interested in focusing my research on marginalized populations and groups because, unfortunately, they're very underrepresented in science,” Hernandez said. “I would like to do research on families that have undergone adversity, and how that may actually impact a child's curiosity, since that's a big part of their learning development.”


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