Vidi grant for educationalist and infant brain researcher

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has awarded a Vidi grant to both educationalist Lisette Hornstra and developmental psychologist Caroline Junge. This prestigious grant represents a sum of €800,000, which the researchers can use to develop their own innovative research focus areas and hire one or more researchers for their project. Hornstra will be researching equal education opportunities for pupils, while Junge aims to identify the role of very early brain development in subsequent language development disparities. 

Lisette Hornstra
Lisette Hornstra

As Hornstra points out, education unfortunately isn't the great equaliser it is intended to be, in practice. 'Many children who come from a migrant background or have less educated parents start their school careers at a disadvantage. They usually don't manage to close that gap during primary school.' Hornstra's research aims to determine how teachers unintentionally perpetuate educational disadvantages in their daily interactions with primary school pupils from different backgrounds. 'And more importantly, what they can do to minimise those disadvantages.' 

Monitoring sixty classes 

The UU educationalist will be using the grant to hire two PhD candidates. 'With their help, we'll be monitoring sixty different classes in the later years of primary school over a period of several years. We will be accurately monitoring daily interactions between teachers and their pupils by means of observations and questionnaires. We will also analyse how this all relates to educational outcomes such as motivation, engagement and the scholastic performance of different student groups. This will ultimately help us to understand how teachers can minimise educational disadvantages.'

Caroline Junge
Caroline Junge

Brain and language

Junge's research aims to determine why children develop their language skills at different speeds. 'We already know that parental language input is extremely important. The way in which the child processes speech also plays a key role. However, there have to be more predictive factors that can explain differences in language development. The development of the brain, for example.' The brain undergoes enormous development during the earliest stages of childhood. 'We also see a lot of individual differences between the children during these early stages of brain development. However, we don't know whether these early developmental disparities are linked to later language development. I want to explore that with my team now, both during the prenatal period and in early babyhood.' 

Over 2000 children 

The UU youth researcher will be joining a cohort study monitoring early brain development: the Youth Cohort. The study has measured the brain development of over 2000 children in the cohort over the past few years. Junge: 'Those measurements were already taken during the mothers' pregnancies, using 3D ultrasounds. EEG measurements were also taken in a later stage of the babies' lives. These children have since aged a bit, so we can evaluate their overall language skills.' The UU youth researcher hopes this will ultimately reveal the role of brain development in language development disparities. 

I could hardly believe it. I still don't quite believe it, to be honest.

Flying the flag 

The two researchers had been checking their email somewhat nervously over the past few days, hoping for confirmation that they had been awarded the Vidi grant. When the email finally arrived, they were both somewhat dumbstruck. Hornstra: 'I could hardly believe it. I still don't quite believe it, to be honest. I immediately called my partner, I was so happy.' Junge also informed her partner as quickly as possible. 'He actually flew a flag for me at home, he was so happy and proud. The flag was flying beside the flag for the girl next door who had just graduated from high school.'