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Jimena Santillan

College: Hunter College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2012

Paying Attention

Next time you're in a crowded restaurant, notice how you are able to choose to focus only on your dinner companion's banter and ignore the chatter of the couple to your left or the waiter taking an order to your right. Blotting out everything that's irrelevant is called selective attention, and most of us can do it without having to think about it.

What happens in the brain's neurons that allow this to happen? And can anything - such as bilingualism - enhance this ability?

Jimena Santillan (Hunter, B.A. in psychology 2012) will explore that possibility in a doctoral program at the University of Oregon with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This is the most prestigious award a graduate student in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can receive. Providing $126,000 over three years, the grant recognizes and supports exceptional students who have proposed graduate-level research projects in their fields.

"I'm from Mexico, where I went to an English-immersion school," she says. "I started learning this second language when I was very young, and that helped a lot. I want to see whether bilingualism plays a role in the development of selective attention. Bilingual children have to inhibit one language to speak the other, so they're constantly practicing this skill. Perhaps that translates into an advantage in being able to better focus their attention in other domains."

Research shows that children of lower socioeconomic status are not as good at selective attention as those who are wealthier, but that finding has an unusual twist in this country when a second language is introduced. In most parts of the world, "bilingualism is associated with people who have higher incomes and access to more education," Santillan says. "But in the United States, bilingual children tend to come from families that have migrated from other countries and are from lower socioeconomic status."

She hypothesizes that looking at how the brain responds to stimuli will show that bilingual children will be better at selective attention, and that children from lower socioeconomic status will benefit from an intervention designed to enhance this neurocognitive ability.

"I'll be training children from Head Start programs, who are living below the poverty line, to develop their neurocognitive ability for selective attention, because this ability has been shown to predict academic success."

She will work in Oregon's Brain Development Lab, where psychology and neuroscience Professor Helen Neville has received a grant to translate this intervention into Spanish, allowing Santillan to work with Latino children.

"She wants to use science as a tool to reduce social inequality," Santillan says. "She's pushing for developing research-based education programs and interventions, which is very much in line with my interest in having a social impact through science."

To measure whether bilingualism and selective attention training have an impact at the brain level, she will use electroencephalography, which is the recording of electrical activity via an array of voltage sensors on the scalp. These sensitive sensors can pick up the firing of neurons, measuring whether changes occur in the brain.

Santillan came to New York City, a grandmother's hometown, because she wanted to study abroad. After a freshman year at Pace University, she transferred to Hunter, where she was attracted by well-funded research programs designed to prepare minority students for careers in research.

She was accepted into the Thomas Hunter Honors Program and, in her junior year, became a NIMH COR scholar, a National Institute of Mental Health program that trains underrepresented students in psychology research.

As a senior, she was a BP-ENDURE program scholar. This diversity program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is a partnership between Hunter College and New York, Brown and Vanderbilt Universities and the University of Michigan. Aimed at preparing undergraduates for doctoral research careers, it provides intensive training in neuroscience, research mentors, specialized neuroscience courses and summer research experience. That led her to a Research Experiences for Undergraduates summer internship at Vanderbilt University's Educational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, where she examined the development of native language expertise.

Other undergraduate research included working as an assistant in Hunter's Language and Conceptual Development Lab under the mentorship of Associate Professor Sandeep Prasada. Her main project looked at the role of linguistic cues in the acquisition of generic knowledge (knowledge concerning kinds/categories of things and their properties) about novel objects in adults and children.

In addition, she assisted in Associate Professor Jennifer Mangels' Dynamic Learning lab at Baruch College, helping with a project that examined the relationship between rumination and attention allocation during the processing of learning-relevant information. (Another 2012 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship winner, Carolina Guerra-Carillo, also worked with Mangels.)

She also was part of the Summer Research Opportunity Program at the University of California, Berkeley in 2010, where she worked on a project looking at children's conceptions of free will.

Santillan says that Hunter prepared her well for doctoral work and helped confirm that research is "the path I want to follow."

"Having the chance to be exposed to the scientific method from different angles and at various stages in my career has provided me with the training and experience necessary to thoroughly comprehend what conducting research entails," she wrote in an essay submitted for the National Science Foundation grant. "It has enabled me to be actively engaged in multiple stages of the research process.

"I want to contribute to change. I strongly believe that with the privilege of a higher education comes the responsibility to use it to give back to the community, particularly on behalf of those that have not had such opportunities. I want to make my own contribution through science by using a research-based approach to strive to remedy one of the most pressing issues society faces today: educational disparities."

By better understanding how environmental factors influence cognitive development at the brain level, Santillan wrote, she hopes to find ways to assure that students "develop the neurocognitive abilities they will need to succeed academically and in the future." This will help "alleviate the detrimental consequences that the achievement gap brings to individuals and to society as a whole."