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NSF Grant Supports Professor Sarah Berger’s Investigation of How Sleep Impacts Infants’ Learning

Professor Sarah Berger (inset) and a baby wearing an eye-tracking device. Photos courtesy of Berger

By Lida Tunesi

We all know how important sleep is for our own mental health and daily functioning. It’s also understood that sleep is even more crucial for infants as they process new information and build motor skills. Despite this, there is a dearth of research on how exactly sleep impacts learning in infants.

Professor Sarah Berger (GC/College of Staten Island, Psychology) has been awarded funding from the National Science Foundation to shed some light on the subject. The grant amounts to over $485,000 over three years.

“I am thrilled to have received recognition from the NSF for this collaborative, interdisciplinary project,” Berger said. “This funding will support research that allows us to better understand the mechanisms underlying the relation between sleep and learning in infancy.” 

Not only will the research provide a better understanding of how sleep helps infants develop motor problem-solving skills and take in new information, but those insights could help researchers create early interventions to help struggling infants.

Berger plans to dive deep into three main questions. She will study the way maturational changes in sleep patterns impact the relationship between sleep and learning, the function of napping in learning, and whether the sleep-and-learning connection is compromised in infants who are at risk for sleep disorders.

Berger’s group will study preterm infants, using their lower capacity for sleep and attention as a model to compare with infants born at term. Their research will make use of eye-tracking technologies, sleep monitoring, and a program that measures infants’ ability to sit and control their posture.

The funding also provides stipends for doctoral students working with Berger, allowing them to focus on their research, gain experience managing a lab, and travel to professional conferences to present their work. Berger’s Ph.D. students also have the opportunity to mentor students at the high school, undergraduate, and master’s degree levels.

The benefits extend to undergraduates as well. For several years, Berger has run a summer mentoring program for students who are typically underrepresented in the sciences, and the grant will make the program possible for another three years. Students get a paid research opportunity as well as a series of seminars and professional development programming, opening doors for students who don’t have the privilege of being able to afford unpaid summer internships.

“The first year that I ran this program, over 250 undergraduates from around the country applied for five spots,” Berger said. “Clearly, support for undergraduate research is needed!”

Submitted on: AUG 29, 2020

Category: General GC News | Grants | Psychology | Research Studies | Voices of the GC