This ongoing series of profiles features Center-affiliated faculty members and describes their research.
When humanitarian crises hit around the world, nongovernmental organizations rush into the fray, intensively focused on urgent survival needs, not necessarily on longer-term impacts that may take an even greater toll on the country and its citizens. Theresa Betancourt, a Center-affiliated faculty member who studies children in adversity and has worked alongside NGOs, wants to help them see that farther horizon: Combining short-term survival efforts with attention to children’s developmental needs only magnifies the long-range benefits for individuals and societies.
As a health economist, Günther Fink had never focused on early childhood development issues. That was until he was in the midst of studying whether a major, ongoing anti-malaria initiative in Zambia could—beyond the obvious effects on health—benefit the long-term development of the impoverished country. Fink wondered, too, if the campaign could have an effect on child development. It turned out that if he wanted a comprehensive, culturally appropriate measure of child development, he’d have to build a new one—a task easier said than done.
As a young neurobiologist, Takao Hensch started exploring classic questions of brain development by studying the visual systems of mice—something most scientists considered a waste of time. “What could you possibly learn from mice?” they asked, noting the animals’ nocturnal nature and horrendous eyesight. Twenty years and countless lab mice later, Hensch, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard and professor of neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH), has answered skeptics again and again with significant breakthroughs in how experiences shape the developing brain at the molecular level.
Charles A. Nelson studies the brain and behavioral development of young children, focusing in particular on those children for whom early development has somehow gone awry (or is at risk for going awry), either as a consequence of adversity early in life or because of biologically based injury. Learn more about his work studying the effects of institutionalization on Romanian orphans as well as his role in a groundbreaking, linked set of studies researching the mechanisms for how early experience can change the biology of the brain and body for life.
One of the most vexing problems in attempting to understand and treat suicide-prone adolescents is that one of the times they are most likely to succeed in taking their own lives is immediately after they’ve been discharged from the hospital. In other words, right after they’ve assured everyone they’re just fine. Learn more about Matthew K. Nock’s work to develop more effective ways to predict adolescent suicide—before it’s too late.
Jordan Smoller, M.D., Sc.D., a psychiatric geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has spent his research career identifying the role of genes and experience in patients’ risk for developing psychiatric disorders. Now, the professor at Harvard Medical School and at the Harvard School of Public Health has been named the first science director of the Center on the Developing Child’s Science of Health and Development Initiative. By creating a hub for multi-disciplinary research on child development, he hopes to spur research and new ways of thinking that ultimately could inform innovations in public health policy and practice.
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What does it take to be sure that children develop robust language skills in early childhood and strong literacy skills later on? Exposure to language and literacy are, obviously, crucial, but equally important is the social and motivational context for that exposure, argues Catherine Snow, a Center-affiliated faculty member and the Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). As a result, she suggests that the preparation for preschool and primary teachers needs to broaden its traditional focus on how children acquire language and literacy skills to include an understanding of why.
The intersection of research, policy, and practice is where, most of the time, you’ll find developmental and community psychologist Hirokazu Yoshikawa. Learn more about Yoshikawa’s work, including building the nation’s most comprehensive database of early childhood program evaluation studies, as well as his work in China, Chile, and creating the family workforce development component of a multifaceted early childhood project in Tulsa, Okla.
Photos by Fred Field