Surrain wins NIH Pathway to Independence Award

By Roman Petrowski, Office of Communications

Sarah Surrain, PhD - Pathway to Independence Award
Sarah Surrain, PhD

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Sarah Surrain, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Learning Institute, with the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award.

The Pathway to Independence Award is designed to facilitate a timely transition of outstanding postdoctoral researchers or clinician-scientists from mentored research positions to independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions, and to provide independent NIH research support during the transition that will help individuals launch competitive, independent research careers.

“Receiving the NIH Pathway to Independence award is life-changing,” Surrain said. “It means that I will be able to devote myself fully to conducting impactful, equity-focused research serving emergent bilingual children and their families.”

The award will provide Surrain with an additional one to two years of postdoctoral training, followed by three years of research support in a faculty position.

“My research so far has explored the role of context and adult-child interactions in bilingual development, but this award will allow me to gain additional training and mentorship in Spanish-English bilingual development for children who also have language difficulties or delays,” Surrain said. “Because these children are often at heightened risk of Spanish loss as they move through school, it is critically important that we identify ways to support development in both of their languages as a foundation for family communication, positive identity development, and thriving in school and life.”

With the funding, Surrain will use naturalistic language observations to advance the understanding of language development in Spanish-English emergent bilinguals at risk of developmental language disorder and identify promising targets for future strength-based interventions while developing new approaches to analyzing daylong recordings in bilingual settings.

The award allows Surrain to pursue three specific aims with her research. First, she will analyze existing data from an earlier trial of Play and Learning Strategies (PALS), a parent program developed by Dr. Susan Landry, her primary mentor on the project. PALS is a responsive parenting intervention that has been shown to be very effective in helping parents to be more responsive to their children’s interests and needs to support their child’s language development. Surrain will evaluate the impact of receiving PALS in Spanish on targeted caregiver behaviors and child Spanish proficiency.

The second aim will involve recording video observations to identify home language-supportive behaviors that predict emergent bilinguals’ Spanish proficiency. The final aim will use new daylong recordings to quantify home language-supportive behaviors across caregivers in the ongoing PALS study and determine if these behaviors predict child Spanish proficiency and help explain the effects of PALS on children’s Spanish development.

“This work will advance our understanding of language development in emergent bilinguals at risk for language difficulties, identify promising targets for future strength-based interventions, and develop new approaches to analyzing daylong recordings in bilingual settings,” Surrain said. “The training I receive will position me to transition to an independent research faculty position focused on the intersection of bilingualism and language difficulties in preschool-aged children.”

Surrain earned her doctorate degree in Human Development, Learning, and Teaching at Harvard University and her master’s degree in Language and Literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She joined the Children’s Learning Institute as a postdoctoral research fellow in 2021.