Each year, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recognizes an outstanding fellow from our Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. This year, IES has selected joint recipients for the 2017 award: Rachel Abenavoli and Callie Little. They will receive their awards and present their research at the annual IES Principal Investigators meeting in Washington, D.C. in January 2019.
Dr. Abenavoli received her doctorate in Human Development and Family Studies from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). She is currently a postdoctoral research scientist at New York University’s Steinhardt’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change, and is working in the area of early learning and social-emotional development. Dr. Little received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Florida State University (FSU). She is currently a research fellow in the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences at the University of New England in Australia, where she specializes in understanding the development of cognitive and academic skills for individuals from early childhood through college.
We asked our Outstanding Fellows how participating in an IES-funded predoctoral training program helped their development as researchers.
The IES-funded predoctoral training program at Penn State provided me with the resources, opportunities, and skills needed to begin building my own program of education research. I began my graduate program with broad interests in young children’s social-emotional functioning. The fellowship helped me shape and narrow the focus of my research. By participating in regular seminars, attending talks, and meeting with external invited speakers, I began applying my developmental lens and focus on early social-emotional skills to the study of educational contexts and educationally-relevant outcomes. With generous fellowship funding that gave me the freedom and flexibility to pursue my own research questions, I was able to focus my work in graduate school on the interplay between children’s social-emotional and academic skills as they make the transition to school.
The IES fellowship also provided me with opportunities to learn, practice, and hone my methodological skills. Courses and seminars in program evaluation, causal inference, and multilevel modeling were particularly critical in building my capacity for conducting rigorous school-based research. Invited speakers complemented these core learning experiences by highlighting best practices and innovative approaches in education science. I came away from this training equipped with a range of analytic and methodological tools that are necessary to address the diversity and complexity of education research questions, settings, and designs.
Being an IES fellow has also connected me to a network of established and early career education researchers. Regular meetings with faculty mentors and other IES fellows from different home departments provided a space to discuss new ideas, experiences in the field, and possible collaborations. Conference funding enabled me to attend education research conferences and expand my professional network beyond Penn State. Engaging with this community solidified for me the value of a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to understanding children’s learning and development in context.
My work is more rigorous and more relevant to education practice and policy because of the IES predoctoral fellowship, and I’m so grateful for the experiences, mentors, and other fellows who are critical to the success of the program at Penn State.
First and foremost, the support and training I received through the IES pre-doctoral fellowship at FSU provided me with an intense and philosophical appreciation of construct validity: whether an investigation can accurately measure what it was designed to measure. This appreciation will continue to guide how I develop and implement research studies.
The rigorous statistical courses included in FSU’s core curriculum provided a solid foundation for building my quantitative skills. Additionally, the combined focus on study-design and methodological training supplied me with a comprehensive knowledge base and the skills to investigate the complex associations among reading skills, and between reading skills and behavioral outcomes. The exposure to multiple advanced statistical methods coupled with the opportunity to directly apply these methods to relevant data so early in my career prepared me for my current projects which use large-scale twin data to conduct high-quality research on individual differences in the development of cognitive and academic skills.
The multidisciplinary environment at FSU, with its rich and diverse range of research programs and faculty, exposed me to a series of analytic techniques and content-area expertise that helped to shape an open-minded and creative approach to formulating research questions. This unique environment was one of the greatest advantages to the IES fellowship, providing the opportunity for strong mentorship, collaboration, and feedback. Most importantly, I used this opportunity to develop ongoing projects with colleagues where we innovatively combine evidence-based methods from several fields.
Fellowship funding enabled me to attend conferences and workshops with other IES fellowship teams, and provided me with access to research resources. I gained new insights into science communication, learned new techniques, and broadened my network of collaborators. I was able to recruit participants and purchase standardized assessment materials, and design and implement several of my own studies during my Ph.D. The resulting rich and unique data sets form the foundation of my current independent research. From my experiences through the IES fellowship at FSU, I stand well-prepared to continue to conduct innovative and high-quality research into the complex mechanisms underlying achievement.
Katina Stapleton is the program officer for the Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences.