James Madison University

Faculty and Student Collaboration:  Face Perception in Infants

By: Jon Centeno
Posted: March 18, 2014

PHOTO: Research participant

In the Department of Psychology, faculty and students work together to conduct research. Dr. Krisztina Jakobsen has collaborated with students in her infant development lab since arriving at JMU five years ago. Initially, she had no infants in her database and had to start her lab from scratch. Now she has over 200 families; some of them with multiple kids who participate in her studies. A challenging aspect for her and her students is recruitment. “We have to wait for [babies] to be the right age, and then they have to come in and be awake and alert…and not be hungry.”

With her team of students, she concentrates on visual perception in infants with regard to how they process human faces. A current study focuses on how human faces among objects are processed in relation to nonhuman primate faces and in relation to mammal faces. “Basically we present the face among objects on a computer screen and the eye tracker shows us where on screen the babies look…we see how quickly the different faces capture the babies’ attention.” Her research is showing that by six months of age, babies are looking quicker to human faces over mammal faces, and 11-month-olds are showing the same pattern as adults, in that they are looking quicker to human faces than both nonhuman primate and mammal faces. “They know a lot more and can tell us a lot more than we give them credit for, so it’s kind of cool to get a perspective from someone who can’t talk.” Her findings have been presented at the Cognitive Development Society convention, APS conventions, and other conferences.

Her research students are no strangers to presenting as well. Dr. Jakobsen gives all her research assistants the chance to present at the psychology symposium, conferences, and some students even get to write publications. This ties into a skill she wants all her lab students to leave with: effective communication. “Communicating with different types of people…is important. Particularly…if they want to work with different populations. You interact differently with parents and their baby than you do with an undergraduate or when you are presenting your data to others.”

Senior psychology major Alison Fullerton first learned about the lab when she knew she was interested in child development. She talked to Dr. Jakobsen her sophomore year, and applied her first semester of senior year. “I decided to apply to her lab. Once I learned more about it, I realized it was awesome!” Alison definitely agrees that communication is a skill that has been developed while working in this lab. “I definitely learned how to communicate and plan with families. I learned a lot about the research process as well. Doing literature reviews, writing up the papers…I learned a lot about the logistics of how to run a study.”

Junior psychology major Zach Buchin joined the cognitive development lab to gain research experience. He is in charge of arranging the array of pictures used in the eye tracker studies (“There’s only a finite amount of pictures we can use for our study. We actually have exhausted google images!”), as well as writing Institutional Review Board (IRB) proposals. What he loves most about the lab is the main tool that he works with: the eye tracker. Zach finds it interesting to see what the human eye can focus on, and more importantly how the eye tracker can offer so much information about the human eye in general. 

Student research is something that can be seen as daunting or something that is potentially difficult to look for, but looking for opportunities is easier than it seems. Dr. Jakobsen offers this simple advice: look at topics that you are interested in or explore the Department of Psychology website. “If you’re interested in something, then talk to somebody. If that person can’t help you get that experience, then he/she probably knows a different way you can get experience in that area.” Zach states it’s never too early to start looking for opportunities to collaborate with faculty on research. Alison adds that involvement is essential to matching research interests. “If you’re in a class that you really like and you’re really interested in, I would go up to the professor and ask if they have any research opportunities. Always keep asking, you have nothing to lose!”

If you would like more information regarding any open research opportunities in the lab, or if you would like to be a participant, visit http://sites.jmu.edu/cogdevlab.