Makeba Wilbourn, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, recently received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Barack Obama. Her research focuses on early childhood development and the role of cultural backgrounds on learning, and the award will enable Wilbourn to further these studies. The Chronicle spoke with Wilbourn about her findings and the importance of helping students from underserved communities.

The Chronicle: What does the award mean to you in both a professional and a personal sense?

Makeba Wilbourn: Professionally, the career award is a mechanism of the National Science Foundation that provides grants and funding for the entire scholar. So, it has a research component, an educational component and an outreach component. One of the aspects of the award that is different from a single research-type of grant is that it is not just about a set of studies that was proposed. It was a more integrated grant for me as a scholar and an academic in terms of how my research impacts my teaching and how my teaching can make a mark on the community in a broader way, both the community at Duke and outside.

One aspect of the career grant I was personally incredibly proud of is that for this grant, I proposed an eight-week summer internship for underserved students. This pays for often historically black colleges and institutions that don’t grant Ph.D.'s—it grants the opportunity for students who haven’t had the chance to do research to have an internship and have it funded. They come for eight weeks, and it gives them a really in-depth research experience, but it also provides some professional development and socialization. It’s an incredible opportunity for me to give students who don’t have the opportunities Duke offers to think about a career in psychology and research, as well as provide them with support networks.

This was extremely meaningful because of the first-generation kids. I went to a master’s program before I went to my Ph.D. program, and had I not had faculty who took the time to show me what I didn’t know and teach me what I couldn’t see and expose me to things I didn’t know I needed exposure to, there’s no way I would have been accepted to the Ph.D. program at Cornell. I’m incredibly proud of what this grant affords me professionally as well as training students from diverse backgrounds.

TC: What do you think that parents should do to bolster language learning, specifically vocabulary acquisition?

MW: One of my current graduate students and I have done some really cool work looking at the relationship between pointing gestures and vocabulary development. One of the reasons why I think my work is positioned to make a somewhat unique impact is I’m looking at how early gesture use influences learning, which is in itself not novel because that’s been in the literature for some time now, but I’m looking at how cultural factors play a role. The research has really been clear that early pointing and early gesture use is related to higher vocabulary.

Research shows that caregivers who gesture a lot often have babies who gesture a lot, and babies who gesture a lot before they can use oral language, we can anticipate what their vocabulary development will be. One of the words I use when I talk to parents or go and give workshops is I say things like "point as you walk" and "talk as you point." We give parents this whole laundry list of things to do to improve their children’s learning outcomes, but not all of these are realistic, especially for underserved communities where the parents are working multiple jobs. But the recommendation is that when you are pushing your child in the stroller and you highlight by pointing at signs or labeling, "look at the flower, it’s yellow." The more children get exposure to language and labelling, the more input they have and the more likely they are to learn the labels.

What our research has shown is that when a baby reaches toward something, and you label it, they often don’t make the association between the label and the object. However, the same infant points to the object, and you say "oh, look that’s a bottle," we found experimentally that babies actually learn that label when they point. Babies are actually contributing to their own language development, and if a baby is pointing or gesturing towards an object, one of the best things a parent can do is label and talk about that object. And that’s a pretty easy recommendation to make to parents. It doesn’t require a new skill set, it just means being in tune with the nonverbal communication and make an effort to be more engaged with it.

TC: How did you get interested in your work and what has your journey through academia been like?

MW: I am a first-generation college kid, and I’m a biracial woman who was coming of age in a time when there weren’t very many biracial people. I cross different cultures. I would visit my African-American father and his side of the family and my white mother from Ohio and her side of the family. And there were very different ways we communicated, very different ways we showed respect and love to our family. When I was with my father—my black family side—my non-verbal and my gestures were hugely important. They were read and interpreted and the more I gestured and the more communicative and expressive I was, the closer the bond. When I was with my white family, often they perceived my gestures as being angry or too loud or too big. The other thing was vocabulary and the type of words. The idea of someone being 'smart'—the way someone talked was used as a litmus test of their intellect. And I noticed that when I was with my white family, what you said really mattered, but when I was with my black family, how you said it really mattered. Growing up, I was code-switching. I was switching back and forth to be successful in both places because the ultimate goal of family is connection and communication.

I was always fascinated by babies and kids and how quickly babies could learn things. I was amazed by how you could show babies something once or twice and babies remember it two months later. Two months later, they would come to your house and remember exactly where it was. I had this fascination, this admiration with just how incredible babies and young children were. And then when I started writing about language and language development, again I would be in these classes, and they would make these statements, and I would think, "Well, that's not how it is at my dad's house" or "that was different at my mom's house." As a student in undergrad, I was making these comparisons with what I was being taught and what I experienced, and some of what I was being taught mapped onto some of my experiences and some of what I was being taught didn't.

TC: How do race and class affect language acquisition?

MW: I think we both over and underestimate the impact. Where we often underestimate is the impact of culture. Race is not a real phenomenon. When you travel internationally, you realize that race is something very important in the U.S. but not even really thought about in other parts of the world. I'm talking about race and using it as this really crude proxy for culture.

All I have to do is tell a Duke student, "Duke has a culture." You can only explain it to someone who's not in the culture to some degree, but there's something about being on Duke's campus and being part of that culture that you just have to experience. If you try to explain tenting to someone outside of Duke, everything thinks "Are you crazy? You're paying this tuition. You're living in a tent. Why would you do that?" But there's something very special about tenting. So to assume that families and different cultural groups don't have similar things that are specific to that culture that influences kids' outcomes, it's really ridiculous.

For me, culture and the value we place on cultural difference is often sorely overlooked. What we do is then shift everything to resources—low-income and middle-income—but that to me overlooks so much. We put too much emphasis in many ways on income to account for cultural differences. On the other end, to assume that more resources does not equate to more opportunities is also ridiculous. For me, the intersectionality of how culture and access to resources influences kids' developments—in particular language development—is something that I think our country has to have more open conversations about. We're comfortable doing it when it's Spanish and English, French and Spanish, Mandarin and English, but we have a harder time with groups that speak English but have very different cultures in their households in their communities. How does income exert its influence on us in different ways depending on culture? Some cultures actually have resilience factors built into the way the culture rears its children that actually overcome some of the negative effects of poverty.

Instead of being afraid, we need to dive in, get dirty with it and figure out what aspects of being poor and what aspects of having less resources can actually be overcome by tapping into parts of culture that may actually lead a child to resilience. What parts of culture can instead of shaming groups by saying "you're doing this is bad," how can we augment what cultural practices are being used to help facilitate whatever kids are also struggling with as a function of income? That's the long way of saying they both play a huge role but to assume that one plays only a role or more of a role significantly than the other is also shortsighted.