Award-winning professor launches hybrid learning experience for online students

Early Career Award winner Viridiana Benitez expands access to language-learning research

December 2, 2022

Viridiana Benitez – a daughter of immigrants, an English-as-a-second-language learner and a first-generation college student – knows firsthand what it’s like to overcome challenges in academia. Now, the Arizona State University assistant professor is aiming to help current college students in their own higher education journeys.

In the spring of 2023, Benitez is launching an innovative new course to provide research experience for ASU Online students who utilize a learning modality that, despite its many benefits, has previously lacked the same research opportunities afforded to traditional immersion students who learn in-person, on campus. ASU Assistant Professor Viridiana Benitez smiling, looking at the camera, on a sidewalk lined with trees and bushes. Assistant Professor Viridiana Benitez. Photo by Robert Ewing/ASU Download Full Image

“It is just so important for students to be able to conduct the research they are learning about,” Benitez said.

Benitez is the primary investigator of the Learning & Development Lab at ASU, where she researches cognitive development with a focus on how young children learn words, how they track the patterns of their environment and how language experience, such as bilingualism, affects cognition. She hopes to better understand how to promote the development of language in children, in particular, the kinds of early experiences that might support dual language development.

This fall, she was recognized as an Early Career Award winner by her doctoral training institution, Indiana University. She was selected based on the quality of her early career research and the impact she is having on the field of psychology.

Benitez received her developmental psychology training under the mentorship of Linda Smith, a renowned professor in the field of cognitive development.

“I received the email early this year that I was selected, and I was just very proud, surprised and also very humbled to have received it. The training I received from Dr. Smith really enabled me to become the scientist I am today, and for that I am grateful,” Benitez said.

To accept the award, Benitez flew back to Indiana for a reception dinner with her academic peers and family. At the ceremony, she acknowledged another prominent faculty member from Arizona State University — the late Martha E. Bernal, the first Latina PhD in psychology, which she also received from Indiana University, who studied ethnic identity development among Mexican American children.

Bernal is recognized as a groundbreaking figure in the fields of clinical and developmental psychology, and contributed significantly to the advancement of ethnic minority psychology. Each year, ASU's Department of Psychology also awards The Martha E. Bernal Memorial Scholarship Award to deserving doctoral students who are contributing to research on ethnic identity and minority mental health.

“I have also been reflecting about Martha Bernal’s story and how she may have made it a little easier for someone like me — a daughter of immigrants who is an English-as-a-second-language learner and a first-generation college student — to be able to complete a PhD,” said Benitez. “Additionally, for ASU to be recognized as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, I think is really amazing. We're serving a lot of Latino students, and in particular, in our work, we focus on bilingualism, which is an important factor in the Latino experience.”

This course Benitez is launching in the spring, titled “Learning words across language and development,” is designed to provide the hands-on psychology learning required for continuing training and graduate education. In it, ASU Online students will engage in a 15-week research opportunity to examine the mechanisms of word learning and bilingualism across development.

While the students are working remotely, they will attend weekly meetings with the Learning & Development Lab and help to conduct a literature review on bilingual word learning, design experiments to fill gaps in the literature, and conduct research with adults and children via Zoom.

“Right now, we're conducting a study in which we're inviting parents to read bilingual books to their young child, aged 3 to 4. We're interested in how caregivers incorporate both languages as they are reading to their child,” said Benitez. “I’m very excited for this cohort of students and for all that they will have the opportunity to accomplish.”

Video courtesy the Department of Psychology

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


A love for research inspired alumna to return to ASU for nursing

December 2, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Alyssa Ingurgio’s enthusiasm for research is palpable but her route to a career in the field was a little unconventional.  Alyssa Ingurgio poses for the camera she is wearing a white coat and has a black stethoscope showing When she earns her degree this December, Alyssa Ingurgio will become a two-time ASU alumna. Download Full Image

The 25-year-old first graduated from Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation in 2018, earning a Bachelor of Science in health entrepreneurship and innovation

“After graduating, I got a job as a clinical application specialist and clinical educator, which is a fancy name for the people that integrate the technology, systems and equipment in hospitals,” Ingurgio said.

Graduate school was always something Ingurgio wanted to pursue and while she enjoyed the technology side of health care she was interested in connecting with patients too. So, after taking some time to work and save money she decided it was time to head back to school.

Picking a program to apply to would prove a little trickier. In order to help with that part of the decision, she consulted her colleagues.

“The nurses I worked closely with told me nursing school was the way to go because it opens up so many avenues, including research. In fact, that’s how I found out about the research nurse role and ASU is like my second home, so it felt like a good fit,” she said.

Ingurgio enrolled in Edson College’s Master of Science nursing (entry to nursing practice) program, an accelerated program that prepares students at a graduate level to become registered nurses. 

One of the perks of attending nursing school as a graduate student was the influence of her peers, from all different backgrounds and stages in life. Ingurgio said their passion and drive helped keep her motivated throughout the program.

As for what surprised her about the experience, “I wasn’t expecting for the program to feel so personable,” she said. “I’d felt like grad school was this scary thing where there are these intense expectations from you, and that was the case academically, but I really felt like our professors cared about us and they knew our names.”

Later this month she’ll be recognized as an outstanding graduate as she earns her degree alongside the rest of the class of 2022.

Below she shares some insights from her second time at ASU and her plans for the future.

Question: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

Answer: That would be Paul More, who I had for an advanced human pathophysiology course. It was a really strenuous, science-heavy class so I was in heaven. I remember him talking about how just memorizing what the standard is or the anatomy is, or how a patient should present is not what makes a good clinician. 

He talked about how a great clinician knows why things are happening. And I think that’s also what makes a great researcher, always digging deeper, always wanting to know why and getting into the nitty gritty because there’s always an explanation or you can always find out more. 

Just the way he would talk about why that’s important resonated with me from an investigation standpoint and embodying that curiosity has been really important. It’s also a great study technique. If you can become the expert on something vs. just knowing a drug's mechanism or action then you’ll never forget it.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: They say nursing school is a journey, it’s intense and it's a life-changing experience and my biggest takeaway from this experience is that I truly believe that anybody can learn anything. If I look back a year, two years ago, and could see myself now I wouldn’t believe I was here. I wouldn’t believe that I could do it, that I could learn all this and do really well. 

Of course, there’s variation in that it might take some people longer, or might take somebody no effort vs. somebody else it takes a lot of effort to get to this point. But we’re more resilient and talented than we think we are.

Every day people are becoming nurses and doctors and scientists and they’re finding cures and they’re saving lives. So anybody can do this you just have to go for it.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: When you’re starting out really any big feat, it can feel really scary and overwhelming looking at all the things you’re going to have to do. My best piece of advice is to take each day one at a time. Put one foot in front of the other and just get started. And then you’ll blink and it will be over and you’ll be so proud of yourself.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I currently work at the HonorHealth Research and Innovation Institute and feel really blessed to be there. After graduation and getting my license, I plan to become one of their research registered nurses. In that role, all of my patients will be participants in clinical trials so I’ll be carrying out orders and care to meet study protocols. Right now I’m primarily involved in Phase I (first-in-human) oncology clinical trials. 

Eventually, I would also like to get my PhD in translational science, which will credential me to hopefully lead a clinical trial as a principal investigator.

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

A: I would want to work on expanding diversity in clinical trials. There is a real issue we need to confront when it comes to the generalization of research findings.

If we just look at women, a National Institutes of Health study found more frequent adverse effects and poorer outcomes for women as a result of being excluded from clinical trials.

For example, later diagnosis and less aggressive treatment approaches have resulted in lower survival rates than observed for the white, male population. Especially in cases of heart attacks and AIDS.

It’s terrible because not only do you end up with bad outcomes for individuals but it can also compromise the validity of the entire field. So these are the things we need to talk about and work to address, especially when we talk about health disparities and things like that.

Amanda Goodman

Senior communications specialist, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation