Photo of a father holding a baby engaged with a postdoctoral researcher conducting a studyScientist Charisse Pickron, right, conducted an experiment with a baby and his dad, professor Jed Elison, in the Institute of Child Development

Pathway to the future

Postdoctoral positions attract talent that empowers research

Postdoctoral researchers play an important and unique role at major research universities like the University of Minnesota. With their doctorates complete, young scholars seek a period of additional experience in a different setting to prepare for today’s intensely competitive faculty job searches. In turn, “postdocs” bring valuable expertise for periods of one to several years.

Like graduate students, postdocs identify a faculty member they want to work with, but postdocs have greater freedom to pursue their own work during that mentorship. They’re independent, professional researchers, often developing and leading their own projects, which means their presence pushes a field forward—something for which the top-ranked Institute of Child Development (ICD) is known.

In ICD, the number of postdocs doubled in 2018, from four to eight. All earned their doctorates at other research institutions before coming to Minnesota to gain experience, grow their academic network, and train for the next step in their careers.

Postdocs don’t have the teaching responsibilities typical of graduate students or the juggling act of teaching, lab management, service, and grant writing typical of professors. They are able to focus on research and publishing, and that often depends on labs, of which ICD has 14. 

Building research and community connections

Three of ICD’s eight postdocs are working in the Elison Lab for Developmental Brain and Behavior Research. Associate professor and director Jed Elison is one of the nation’s leading investigators on the developing human brain. He heads teams seeking to understand early development, including social behavior and the emergence of autism.  

In the Elison Lab, a playful ambiance gives little sign of the serious science going on. Pictures of baby elephants hang on the walls. Children play. Most are infants and toddlers who interact with their parents and researchers who don’t wear lab coats. You might see what looks like a puppet show. The lab even has a mascot: yes, it’s an elephant, which makes it easier to remember Elison Lab.

It’s all intentional, says postdoctoral researcher Charisse Pickron.

“We make a somewhat scary sounding thing—bringing your child to be tested—fun and enjoyable in a family-friendly environment,” says Pickron.

Activities are carefully designed to give children opportunities to look at things and reach for them and to give scientists the opportunity to observe and measure their responses. In her study of perception and developing social behavior, Pickron uses a variety of measures—behavioral, electrophysiological, and eye tracking.

After finishing her PhD in developmental psychology in Massachusetts last year, Pickron was drawn to ICD for the opportunity of family and community engagement in research. With a focus on how infants and toddlers perceive social categories, her research often involves parents and caregivers as well, including underrepresented communities. During her appointment, one of her priorities is creating strong research connections between the University and the wider community. In fact, Pickron’s lab work is not confined to the Elison Lab or even the campus.

A “living lab” partnership with the Minnesota Children’s Museum allows Pickron and others to conduct research with museum patrons. In Pickron’s study, toddlers interact with a box full of pictures of faces with different race and gender features. The sessions are recorded, and Pickron scores the videos according to how the toddlers react to certain faces or search for pictures inside the box.

“Doing community-engaged work is very difficult—it can take a long time,” Pickron says. “But being in the Twin Cities and at the U—this is a great opportunity to learn how to do it.”

Photo of a toddler holding a toy next to postdoctoral researcher Charisse Pickron
Postdoctoral researcher Charisse Pickron worked with a child in the Elison Lab

Postdoc Brittany Howell arrived in the Elison Lab in 2014, not long after it opened. From rural New Hampshire, Howell had years of experience working with monkeys before finishing her PhD in neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta. 

“I went into undergrad hoping to become a veterinarian,” Howell explains. “I grew up on a hobby farm and love animals and I wanted to help them. Then, working with monkeys, I learned that I could, in one fell swoop, help to improve the lives of animals and apply that to improve the lives of humans, too.”

Howell defended her dissertation six months after giving birth to her first child. 

“I realized very quickly that I knew way more about monkeys than human development!” says Howell with a laugh. “I didn’t have the knowledge or skill-set to transfer what I knew about monkeys to humans.”

Howell had been part of a multi-site study and knew the Minnesota site’s principal investigator, Regents Professor and ICD director Megan Gunnar, who suggested she contact Elison. Says Howell, “I talked to Jed, and then I packed up my family, my two dogs and household, and moved to Minnesota.”

In the Elison Lab, Howell works closely with families in two big studies. As a neuroscientist, she describes herself as more focused on mechanisms of brain development, and she is looking in particular at components of breast milk and the makeup of babies’ gut microbiome. That requires collecting milk samples from breastfeeding moms in the study and stool samples from the babies.

One of the key capabilities of the Elison Lab is due to the University’s capacity in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which takes place in a facility near the campus stadium. Combined with behavioral and other markers, MRIs are helping to understand normal brain development. Howell runs the scanner and loves to visit with participating families, who come five or six times over the course of two years. She was the first to jerry-rig a crib that could be attached to the scanner bed, literally made of PVC pipe, Gorilla Glue, and zip ties in her living room, and then to work with a local company to design a better one.

Meanwhile, Howell continues to be on the move with her research. In March she presented three papers in Spain on how babies’ gut microbiome changes.

Photo of eight postdoctoral researchers in the Institute of Child Development
Postdoctoral researchers in the Institute of Child Development in September 2018, left to right front, Sarah Lukowski, Charisse Pickron, Narges Afshordi; back, Bolivar Reyes Jaquez, Nicole Perry, Fanita Tyrell, Nadja Richter, and Brittany Howell. Photo by Cassandra Francisco.

A third postdoc in the Elison Lab is wrapping up her work this semester. Nadja Richter arrived in 2016 with a PhD in psychology from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, and additional research experience at Princeton. She is interested in the development of social behavior and motivation.

What drives humans to selectively trust and affiliate with others? How do individual differences shape social interaction? What are the developmental origins of social motivation, social assortment, and group-mindedness?

Previously, Richter conducted studies with children in kindergarten and the early grades.

“You can just ask five-year-olds, ‘Who do you like better?’ or ‘Whom would you like to be friends with?’” she explains. “In my current work with younger kids, I use different methods, like proxemics, to track how they move around in relation to others.

“The Institute of Child Development seemed like the perfect environment for my research,” says Richter.

“Jed’s interest in developing novel measures to capture social engagement during infancy was unique in complementing my ideas,” she says, “so we started working together.”

In the Elison Lab, Richter works primarily with toddlers between one and three years old. She designed and carried out an experimental study in which children play games in a natural but carefully scripted sequence in which—oh, look, someone lost their toy! Or someone dropped a pen! When do children look at the person in need and then engage in helping behavior, picking up a pen for someone, or helping to find a toy?

Elison meets regularly with Richter to discuss their project and publishing her research.

“It’s been an important experience to be able to dive deeper into specific aspects I’m interested in,” says Richter. “I’ve gained a lot of new skills and knowledge.”

The beehive of activity in Elison’s lab is an indicator of widespread interest in the brain. It has attracted pivotal federal funding that makes it attractive to grad students and institutional partners—and to postdocs, whom it can support.

“Jed’s group is a really great example of synergy,” says Howell. “For example, if I think the microbiome is related to prosociality, we can look at that. As postdocs, we’re trying to establish our own scientific niche, and we can.”

Mentors, thinkers, leaders

The Early Language and Experience Lab directed by professor Melissa Koenig is another lab that looks more like a playroom than a research environment. Many disciplines come together as researchers explore factors—linguistic, cognitive, and cultural—that affect how children learn from others. 

“Postdocs fill crucial roles in so many ways,” says Koenig. “They come in with excellent ideas of their own and are ready to pursue them independently. They serve as mentors and support for the graduate students in the lab.” 

Koenig’s lab drew postdocs Narges Afshordi from Harvard and Bolivar Reyes Jaquez from the University of Texas at Austin. The “total child development focus in ICD” was something that appealed to Afshordi, who had previously done much of her work in larger psychology departments. 

Afshordi studies the ways children reason and discover relationships between others. One of her projects investigates whether children are more likely to believe information from a trusted, if unknowledgeable, friend over a well-informed stranger.

“At their core, our experiments are meticulously designed and rigorously carried out,” Afshordi says. “And we have this added challenge of trying to fit it into the mold of something appealing to a very young child.”

Reyes Jaquez studies children’s power-related moral development.

“There are people who are in power who use it selfishly or selflessly everywhere,” he says. “I want to conduct research that helps us better understand the way different societies work.”

After completing a round of research with elementary students in Minneapolis, he began a second round in the Dominican Republic, where he grew up. Reyes Jaquez hopes he can make real impacts in the lives of people from his position as a researcher by producing age-appropriate data that informs early initiatives and best practices combating corruption.

Innovation and accessibility

Three more ICD postdocs work on a range of research in three additional labs.

Sarah Lukowski came for a postdoc after a PhD in psychology at The Ohio State University. Her work focuses on individual differences in mathematical and science development, including Turner Syndrome, a rare genetic condition in girls that’s associated with increased risk for math difficulties.

One of the many things that drew Lukowski to ICD and the Math and Numeracy Lab, directed by professor Michèle Mazzocco, is the ability to contribute her analytical skills to novel data with young children. That is primary to her postdoc experience. In Twin Cities area preschools and elementary schools, she works with study participants using a variety of math activities, such as story-like tasks, paper-and-pencil tasks, blocks, iPad games, and other computer-administered activities, exploring factors that contribute to pathways of math development.

Nicole Perry completed a PhD in human development and family studies in North Carolina before arriving as a postdoc in Minnesota. Here she’s expanding her knowledge of the role of hormones in children’s emotional functioning in the Gunnar Laboratory for Developmental Psychobiology Research, directed by Professor Gunnar. 

In one study in the Gunnar Lab, adolescents come to the lab with their parents and are given five minutes to prepare for a speech, a task known to elicit anxiety and stress. Then they’re shown an empty room with a two-way mirror and told that their speech will be seen by judges behind the mirror and also recorded and shown to a group of their peers. Perry developed a method to rate emotional control during the speech and is examining the association between hormones and emotional functioning during stress in two groups—some teens in the study were internationally adopted and previously lived in institutional settings, others were not. The study is designed to improve our understanding of how previous institutionalized care affects the link between hormones and emotion.

Regents Professor Ann Masten directs Project Competence Research on Risk and Resilience. Masten is known around the world for her research and work on what she calls “ordinary magic,” the factors that support children’s resilience.

Masten’s lab is where Fanita Tyrell landed a postdoc after her PhD at the University of California–Riverside, working with ICD alumna Tuppett Yates, PhD ’05.

“Postdocs have time to shape their own research, not just to work on someone else’s,” says Masten. “That’s really important.”

Tyrell focuses on risk and resilience in adversity-exposed populations, including foster youth and military veterans. She also studies how cultural and contextual processes influence identity development and adaptation in ethnic minority youth.

Currently she’s working on a U of M Grand Challenges project evaluating the effectiveness of policies and programs aimed at ending student homelessness across Minnesota. A first-generation college student who never considered grad school until a professor noticed her potential, Tyrell says it’s important to her that study findings and data reach the wider community.

“One of my dreams is to make science more accessible to the general public,” she says.

The future university

Before the number of ICD postdocs increased last fall from four to eight, Brittany Howell didn’t often interact with the others.

“Then we had this influx of really excited and exciting new postdocs,” says Howell, crediting them with organizing a group that now meets twice a month. “It’s allowing us to benefit from each others’ experience and knowledge.”

Together they share information and resources not just about their research but also on navigating challenges in academia and their fields. At a time of shrinking faculties, when the stakes of any hire are so high, postdoc appointments allow scholars and departments to evaluate each other and gain confidence in a potential match. 

Pickron and Reyes Jaquez, for example, are part of the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, a national consortium of universities working to improve racial and ethnic diversity through postdoctoral training programs. Pickron hopes her experience in ICD will help her forge community–university partnerships throughout her career, particularly with groups underrepresented in child development research.

Tyrell looks forward to teaching and mentoring students from a faculty position. Like the professor who noticed her as an undergrad, she hopes to be an advocate for students with similar experiences.

“I really believe that representation and inclusion matter,” says Tyrell. “My mere presence in the classroom and dedication to my students will inspire them and motivate them to accomplish their own goals.”

ICD’s postdocs are helping to bring not just the institute but the field of child development into the future, where scholars reflect the diversity of the children and families they serve, in Minnesota and around the world. 

Read more about the postdoctoral researchers in ICD.

Postdocs at the U

A total of 827 postdocs were engaged in research at the U of M Twin Cities and Duluth as of September 2018. The majority work in science and medicine, including the College of Science and Engineering (217), Medical School (197), College of Biological Sciences (107), and College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (87).*

Postdocs in CEHD this year work in the Institute of Child Development (8), School of Kinesiology (3), Institute on Community Integration (3), Department of Curriculum and Instruction (2), Department of Family Social Science (2), and Department of Educational Psychology (1).

*Source: U of M Office for Postdoctoral Initiatives

Story by Ellen Fee and Gayla Marty | Photos by Erika Loeks except as indicated | Spring/summer 2019