Research Studies

Research Studies

Sample Research Projects Associated with the FIRSt Database

Dr. Kristin Buss | Tracy Winfree and Ted H. McCourtney Professor in Children, Work, and Families and Professor of Psychology & Human Development and Family Studies

Dr.Buss' central research questions relate to understanding the mechanisms of emotional development with respect to developing temperament and personality. She is primarily interested in the dynamics of emotional reactivity and regulation and how individual differences in state affect are related to trait affect, or temperament. She views emotional expression as partially reflecting individual differences in temperament. In addition, the identification of individual differences in biological processes is central to her research. She is primarily interested in the differentiation of negative affect state and traits (e.g., fear, anger, and sadness) and emotion regulation and dysregulation. Her research program is designed to identify specific mechanisms that underlie individual differences in affective development. Her current research is focused on identifying individual differences in affective developmental trajectories. Specifically, she is interested in addressing questions about whether certain affective styles, related to fear regulation or dysregulation, will serve as protective factors or as diatheses for children at risk for mood disorders. Her current study, TEENS (Temperament, Evolving Emotions, and Neuroscience Study) aims to understand the systems involved in the development of emotion and temperament (e.g., personality and anxiety) in adolescents. To learn more, visit Dr. Buss' website at

Dr. Pamela Cole | Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology and Human Development and Family Studies

Dr. Cole studies emotional development in early childhood with a particular interest in emotion regulation (the ability to modulate one's emotional reactions). The ability to regulate emotions in effective and flexible ways plays a role in the development of social, emotional, and cognitive competencies in children. Moreover, difficulties in emotion regulation have implications for the development of psychopathology. In previous work, she has shown that typically developing preschoolers can (a) self-modulate anger, (b) self-generate positive emotions even if a situation is difficult, and (c) self-generate effective strategies for regulating emotion. She has also shown that children who have difficulty doing these things may be at risk for developing later psychopathology. Current work is designed to understand how little children become competent emotion regulators as preschoolers and how parental emotion can aid or interfere with children’s emotion regulation development. The Development of Self-Regulation Dynamics (DYN-o-SR) is an NICHD-funded collaborative study currently in the data collection stage.  This study uses behavioral and biological (ANS) measures to test a generalized model of self-regulation and its sensitivity to both angry and fearful emotions, to children as well as adults, to parent-child dyadic interaction, and to age-related differences between 30 to 60 months of age. We use advanced modeling techniques with the goal of demonstrating age-related change in emotion regulation dynamics. The Processing of the Emotional Environment Project (PEEP) is an NIMH-funded collaborative study currently in the data analytic stage.  This study capitalizes on neuroimaging methods to test the sensitivity of 7- and 8-year-old children’s voice- and speech-sensitive neural network to their mother’s voice and whether that depends on the emotion in the mother’s voice.  We are also testing an innovative method for objective assessment of the natural emotional environment, using EAR (electronically activated recordings). The Development of Toddlers Study (D.O.T.S.) is an NIMH-funded longitudinal study following 120 children from age 18 months to age 48 months, examining how their own skills and personalities and various aspects of their parents' lives influence the development of awareness, effectiveness, and flexibility in preschool age emotion regulation.  This study provides opportunities to ask new, related questions of archived data. For more information, please visit Dr. Cole's lab:

Dr. Kathryn Drager | Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders

Dr. Drager's research interests focus on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for children and adults with severe disabilities. Specifically, her research interests include AAC for individuals with severe expressive communication disorders, especially for children, adolescents, and adults with severe disabilities who are at the beginning stages of communication, including children with autism. She is also interested in issues faced by the global community in AAC. Dr. Drager studies the role that AAC technologies play in human interaction, and is interested in our ability to harness environmental or personal information to increase access to relevant vocabulary and concepts, and thus to decrease the communication burden and demand on individuals with severe communication disabilities. For information on Dr. Drager's lab, please visit this page:

Dr. Rick Gilmore | Professor of Psychology

Dr. Gilmore is particularly interested in the development of brain networks that enable perceivers to extract information about the layout of the environment, the shape of objects, and the speed and direction of self-movement from patterns of visual motion called optic flow. Gilmore is also keenly interested in developing tools and practices that make scientific research more open, transparent, and reproducible. He is the co-founder and co-director of the digital library. From 2008 to 2014, Gilmore served as the founding Director of Human Imaging at Penn State's Social, Life, and Engineering Sciences Imaging Center (SLEIC). He has won the College of the Liberal Arts tenure-line faculty teaching award, leads the Open Data and Developmental Science (ODDS) Initiative for the Child Study Center, and has had support for his research from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Gilmore has served as president of the Centre Region Bicycle Coalition, the Acoustic Brew Concert Series, and the State College Community Theatre.  For more information, please visit Dr. Gilmore's lab:

Dr. Janet van Hell | Professor of Psychology and Linguistics

Dr. Cynthia Huang-Pollock | Professor of Psychology

Dr. Huang-Pollock is interested in the cognitive and neuropsychological mechanisms that contribute to the development of psychopathology in children, with a focus on children who have problems with attention. Childhood Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is among the most common reasons for referral to medical, psychological, and school services, and is a significant risk factor for multiple poor outcomes, including academic underachievement, peer relationship problems, and emptional/behavioral difficulties. Her current research, funded by NIMH, is interested in understanding the cognitive mechanisms that could explain why ADHD is such a potent risk factor for anxiety disorders and other mental health problems. She is also interested in how children with attention problems acquire new skills, and the degree to which this may explain chronic problems in the acquisition and execution of routine academic and social processes in daily life. For more information, please visit Dr. Huang-Pollock's lab:

Dr. Kathleen L. Keller | Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences

Dr. Keller's research interests include: Neural influences on eating behavior in children; Individual differences in response to portion size in youth; Individual differences in response to food marketing in youth; Teaching children eating related self-regulation; and, Developing strategies to increase vegetable intake in children and adolescents. Her specializations include: pediatric obesity, neuroimaging, food choice, and food selection. For more information, please visit Dr. Keller's lab:

Dr. Erika Lunkenheimer | Professor of Psychology

Dr. Lunkenheimer’s research program seeks to understand how parents and children manage the emotions, behaviors, and stress in their day-to-day lives.  It also addresses how parents and children regulate each other as they live, play, and solve problems together.  When parenting is stressful and parents and children are disconnected, discipline may be less effective and children may develop self-regulation problems.  Funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Dr. Lunkenheimer’s research has shown that greater synchrony of heart rate, breathing, positive emotions, and positive behaviors between parent and child is associated with fewer behavior problems in children and less harsh discipline in parents.  The goals of this research are to better understand how parents and children develop dysregulated behavior through their day-to-day interactions and to improve intervention programs to prevent problem behavior in stressed and overburdened families. For more information, please visit Dr. Lunkenheimer's lab:

Dr. Carol Miller | Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders 

Dr. Miller's research interests are focused around typical and atypical language development, particularly children with specific language impairment; cognitive processes in communication disorders, with emphasis on speed of processing and working memory in children and adults with language disorders; and bilingual language development. She uses behavioral and electrophysiological methods. Member of the Center for Language Science. For more information, please visit Dr. Miller's lab:

Dr. Koraly Pérez-Edgar | McCourtney Professor of Child Studies and Professor of Psychology

Dr. Pérez-Edgar is interested in the relations between temperament and psychopathology. In particular, children with the extreme temperamental trait of behavioral inhibition and shyness show increased risk for social anxiety. However, individual differences in attention mechanisms may play an important role in ameliorating or exacerbating these underlying vulnerabilities. In conducting her work, Dr. Pérez-Edgar has taken a multi-method approach involving direct observation of behavior and cognitive functioning, psychophysiology (EEG & ERP), and neuroimaging (fMRI).  Her next projects will examine the emergence of attention to threat in the first two years of life and use mobile eye-tracking technology to observe social behavior in young children. For more information, please visit Dr. Pérez-Edgar's lab:

Dr. Suzy Scherf | Associate Professor of Psychology

Dr. Scherf's core interests lie in understanding how children form representations of the visual world and how emerging functional specificity of the developing brain supports this process.  Specifically, she is interested in the developmental trajectory of face representations because the discrimination and recognition of faces is one of the most taxing perceptual challenges confronted by people in their day-to-day life.  Also, faces are the pre-eminent social signal, therefore, studying developmental changes in the behavioral and brain basis of face processing in typically developing individuals and in those affected by social-emotional disorders may index a core set of developmental changes within the broader social information processing system. Her approach allows her to address some of the most pressing questions about how developmental changes in brain function and structure support changes in behavior.  She employs converging methodologies, including functional and structural magnetic resonance, and diffusion tensor imaging along with detailed behavioral paradigms in both typically developing populations and those with developmental disorders, with particular emphasis on autism, to examine development across multiple time points from early childhood to adulthood.  Her goals are to 1) understand the mechanisms by which these representations change developmentally, particularly during adolescence when pubertal maturation has a profound influence of the re-organization of neural circuits and the processing of social information, 2) understand how cortex develops the capacity to represent and compute face representations that support multiple aspects of face processing, including face identification, categorization, and, in the future, the process of garnering social attributions from faces, 3) elucidate the consequences when psychological or neural processes deviate from the normal trajectory, and 4) develop intervention paradigms that may alter abnormal developmental trajectories in both the behavioral and neural aspects of face processing. For more information, please visit Dr. Scherf's lab:

Dr. Douglas Teti | Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics

Dr. Teti is a developmental scientist whose research is focused on infant and early child development. He has had a long-standing interest in socio-emotional development in early childhood (e.g., quality of attachment to parents), parenting competence and parenting at risk, how parenting is affected by parental mental health and contextual factors, and how parenting affects infant and child functioning. All of his current projects examine the joint, interactive effects of biological/medical and environmental/parenting factors on child development and parenting during the early years of life. All of them are interdisciplinary and involve graduate and undergraduate students, and his students draw from the projects they work on in developing their own areas of expertise. He believes it is important that students working with him develop into productive scholars in their own fields of expertise, and thus his students are actively involved in all phases of research, from data collection and coding and data analysis, to being co-authors and lead authors on presentations and peer-reviewed papers. He is the principal investigator of Project SIESTA: Project SIESTA (Study of Infants’ Emergent Sleep TrAjectories) draws from previous research demonstrating linkages between sleep disruption in childhood and developmental delays in cognitive development and behavior problems in children. Although these linkages are well-established for children in the preschool years and beyond, very few studies have examined these links in infancy, nor are the reasons for these relations well-understood. Project SIESTA is a longitudinal study of (1) linkages between infant sleep quality during the first two years and infant socioemotional development (e.g., quality of infant-parent attachments, infant behavior problems and behavioral competencies); (2) how parenting of infants at bedtime and night time (from video-recordings), beginning at1 month of age through 24 months, affects the development of infant sleep quality over time; (3) the intersection of parenting practices, parenting quality, and infant sleep in predicting infant developmental outcomes and stress reactivity (diurnal cortisol activity) across the first two years of life. Project SIESTA also examines how parental behavior at bedtime and night time predicts infant functioning during the day. Project SIESTA has several co-investigators from Penn State’s departments of HDFS (Cindy Stifter, Mike Rovine) and Psychology (Pamela Cole), Hershey Medical Center’s Department of Pediatrics (Ian Paul), and one investigator from the University of California, David (Thomas Anders). The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (R01HD052809).  For more information, please visit Dr. Teti's lab:

Dr. Krista Wilkinson | Distinguished Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders

Dr. Wilkinson studies early communication and language in learners with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Her main interests include vocabulary learning as well as the use of visual supports in communication and education. Dr. Wilkinson served as Editor for American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology (2014-2016) and as Editor-in-Chief for 2017.  She has also served as Associate Editor at Augmentative and Alternative Communication and the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.  Dr. Wilkinson is an affiliated faculty with the Child Study Center at Penn State and holds an adjunct appointment at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. For  information on Dr. Wilkinson's lab, please visit this page:

Many families find that participating in research is interesting; gives insight into their children's development; and provides a sense of having contributed to important advances in knowledge. Some research projects also provide financial compensation to participants.

If you are the legal parent or guardian of a child between newborn and 18 years of age, or are expecting a child soon, and are interested in registering your family for the FIRSt database. You will be contacted when a researcher is interested in adding you to a project.


Questions about the FIRSt database and this webpage should be directed to

General questions about research at Penn State should be directed to The Vice President for Research.