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OISE's Kaja Jasinska wins Connaught New Researcher Award for work on reading development and interrupted schooling

October 1, 2021

By Perry King

Professor Kaja Jasinska was awarded the Connaught New Researcher Award for her work on the impact of interrupted schooling on the development neural systems of resettled refugee children (photo courtesy of Kaja Jasinska).

Assistant Professor Kaja Jasinska, from the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, is one of three Ontario Institute for Studies in Education faculty members awarded the Connaught New Researcher Award.

Jasinska, a University of Toronto alumna who joined as Assistant Professor in Sept. 2020, researches children’s learning and literacy. Jasinska joins Assistant Professors Elizabeth Buckner and Daniel Corral as winners based at the Institute. There are 53 U of T faculty recipients of the award for the 2021-2022 school year.

The Connaught New Researcher Award is designed to help early career faculty members establish a strong research program and increase their competitiveness for external funding. Roughly $1 million was awarded in 2019-20 competition. Support for about 50 awards of up to $20,000 is usually provided to the highest ranked proposals.

The award is supported by the Connaught Fund and is part of U of T’s commitment to fostering excellence in research and innovation.

“Kaja Jasinska’s research will help us understand the impact of interrupted schooling on the development neural systems for reading of resettled refugee children,” says Professor Leah Cowen, U of T’s Associate Vice-President, Research, in her Aug. 27 statement.

“Professor Jasinska’s research will uncover connections between neural networks and reading development that have important implications for theory. Her work may also provide key evidence to inform practices to support learning to read in children who have experienced interrupted schooling,” says Michele Peterson-Badali, OISE’s Associate Dean, Research, International & Innovation. “On behalf of the OISE community, I congratulate Professor Jasinska on this Connaught New Researcher Award.

To learn more about her research, specifically her award-recognized project, OISE News spoke with Professor Jasinska. This is what we learned.

Why did you want to research this topic?

As a cognitive neuroscientist with a deep interest in understanding how children learn to read, I was motivated by the potential to study how children who, through displacement and migration, experience interruptions to their schooling learned to read, and how the neural systems that support reading development adjusted to periods of interrupted schooling.

What sparked your interest in neuroscience? For that matter, why do you find this particular inquiry into children so fascinating?

I’ve always been interested in how things work, and found neuroscience to be a particularly interesting topic. My interest in the neurobiology of language and literacy has a very personal origin. When I immigrated to Canada, I recall noticing at some point I had become fluent in English and had started thinking in English, rather than in my first language. I wanted to know how this was possible, how was my brain able to learn this new language relatively easily? This curiosity led me to my current research program aimed at understanding how the developing brain supports children’s ability to learn language and learn to read.

What is the aim of the research? What is it you want to argue/say?

As refugee children resettle in Canada, they receive quality education and resume learning to read. However, refugee children significantly lag behind their Canadian peers and other English language learners in reading, even after years of schooling. Importantly, this gap is wider for children who arrived in Canada at an older age. While interrupted schooling clearly has a negative impact on children’s literacy development, we know very little about the specific effects of interrupted schooling across the developmental trajectory for reading, and even less about the neurobiological mechanisms by which interrupted schooling impacts the neural systems that supports reading. The aim of this research is to examine how patterns of neural activation underlying reading correspond to reading outcomes in refugee children who experienced interrupted schooling at different ages and resumed their education upon resettlement in Canada, with the objective of leveraging such new insights to better inform reading instruction.

How will you be investigating your research questions? Is it just close observation and analysis of students’ reading and cognition levels?

We use a combination of neuroimaging techniques and behavioral language and cognitive assessments in our laboratory. Our primary tool is Near Infrared Spectroscopy neuroimaging, which, like fMRI, allows us to measure spatial and temporal patterns of neural activity in the brain. Our technique is entirely portable, and we’ve been able to collect neuroimaging data from babies, children, and adults anywhere – including at the family kitchen table, and as far away as rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. By combining this technique with other rich data sources (experiments, assessments, questionnaires, life histories, etc.), we are able to gain a deeper understanding of learning.

How will the Connaught New Researcher Award help you accomplish your research goals?

The Connaught New Researcher Award will launch my research program on reading development at the University of Toronto and allow me to train new graduate students in cognitive and educational neuroscience.

How has your time at OISE broadened your research questions and strengthened your research capabilities?

OISE is a fantastic place for studying the neurobiology of reading; you’re surrounded by a wealth of disciplinary perspectives and methods—colleagues who share your interest in this very topic, but leverage different research tools to inform related research questions. There is a strong theory-driven research with a focus on application; you’re required to think about the implications of your research for clinical practice, intervention, education policy, etc. It is very exciting.

More OISE news

Professor Daniel Corral wins Connaught New Researcher Award for his work on inequalities in higher education

OISE's Elizabeth Buckner receives Connaught New Researcher Award for her research on sustainable development in education

See complete list of 2021 winners