IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Education Research, Eyesight, and Overcoming Adversity: An Interview with Pathways Alumna Carrissa Ammons

The Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program was designed to inspire students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in doctoral study to pursue careers in education research. In recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we asked Carrissa Ammons, an alumna of the California State University, Sacramento (CSUS) Pathways training program, to share her experiences as a student-researcher with low vision.

What sparked your interest in education research?

My interest in education research stems from my own lived educational experiences as a formerly impoverished person who was born with a visual impairment. My innate passion for understanding the world around me motivated me to continue learning, and my intrinsic curiosity drew me towards the sciences at a rather young age. Over time, I became interested in psychology, and I entered college with the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist. However, my exposure to research methods and applied research experiences within the Cultural and Community Lab at CSUS gave me the confidence to pursue a career as a researcher. Now, I want to use my knowledge and work to help reduce barriers to education for individuals who have not been historically represented within education and the social sciences.

What was your favorite experience as a Pathways fellow?

My Pathways summer internship at the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) has been an invaluable part of my professional and personal development. The internship was challenging at times but also incredibly fulfilling. All of the SCOE staff I worked with were supportive and gave me great insight into how the state values and uses evidence-based decision making and evaluation. During my 10-week internship, I assisted with a variety of projects, including evaluations for programs relating to bullying prevention, underage substance use prevention and intervention, and California National History Day. I also helped complete a literature review on evidence-based practices in recruiting and retaining diverse teacher candidates for the SCOE internal education career pipeline program.

I learned that researchers who work for state organizations must excel at communicating their findings to both technical and non-technical audiences because they are often tasked with communicating data to individuals with little to no background in research, and because they heavily rely on data visualization as a means of disseminating information in a way that is easy to digest for a diverse array of audiences.

What have been some challenges or barriers you have faced in academia as a person with low vision?

Transportation and inequitable access to written and visual information have been the most salient barriers to education that I have faced during my academic career. I am unable to obtain a driver’s license in most states due to the level of my visual impairment, so I am often dependent on public transportation. While I am incredibly grateful for the increased freedom that I have been granted by the Sacramento Regional Transit, some areas of their system can still be a bit inconsistent—it can be difficult, if not impossible at times, to make impromptu changes to my weekly routines. This structural restriction to my mobility has made it difficult to participate in events and activities outside of certain time frames and areas, and this can evoke a lot of anxiety and aversions for me as I try to fully participate in academic experiences and extra-curricular activities.

For example, reaching the CSUS campus from my home via transit requires a transfer from a bus to the light rail and onto another bus. This process takes approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes from door to door for a trip that would typically take approximately 20 minutes by car. If an issue arose during any leg of this trip (such as a late or canceled bus), it could set me back an hour or more depending on the time of day. This has caused me to miss entire classes and events at times. Alongside the stress of arriving places on time, relying on the public transit system as one’s sole means of transportation can be incredibly taxing mentally at the end of the day. There were many times during my evening commute home from college when the bus on the last leg of my trip would be canceled for the evening due to a driver shortage, forcing me to either ask a loved one or use a rideshare service (which as a student was not always financially feasible). 

Having low vision has also been a barrier throughout my education; however, major advancements in accessible technology during my college years have provided me with more equitable access to visual information. There are some environments, such as academic conferences, where I still struggle to gain access to the same quality of experience as my fully sighted peers. For example, academic poster sessions are environments that require a lot of reading, and for individuals to be able to quickly scan information in order to get the most out of the limited time provided for each session. While most presenters are happy to explain their work to their onlookers, it can still be difficult at times to get the full picture of their work without being able to fully examine all the components of their posters, such as charts or tables.

One easy way presenters and conferences can disseminate information in a more equitable way is to include tools like QR codes on visual material to allow individuals to view them in ways that may be most accessible to them. Academic organizations can also make more of an effort to assess the needs of their members prior to conferences, rather than assuming that everyone with a disability will be able to advocate and accommodate for themselves prior to the event, especially those that claim to be student-friendly organizations. Learning to navigate new spaces can be difficult enough, let alone having to do so while having physical or mental traits that were not considered during the planning and implementation of these events.

What advice would you give students with disabilities who wish to pursue a career in education research?

I wish all students with disabilities could recognize that the concept of disability is a byproduct of living in a society that was not built with us in mind, and those traits do not reflect any deficit in our personal ability to achieve our dreams. It may be difficult at times, but never forget that representation is the only way we, as a scientific community, can achieve the fullest picture of the human experience and push the needle closer to creating an inclusive society for everyone, including ourselves. Despite being faced with myriad historic and contemporary barriers to inclusion and belonging within our society, we have always been here, we will always be here, and our voices deserve to be included in conversations pertaining to education and human development.


Carrissa Ammons recently graduated from California State University, Sacramento with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. As part of her Pathways fellowship at CSUS, Carissa conducted research with Dr. Lisa Romero on the efficacy of motivated self-regulation theory in mitigating implicit biases of college level educators. This summer, Carissa served as a data analysis and visualization intern at the Sacramento County Department of Education’s Center for Student Assessment and Program Accountability. Carissa is currently applying to graduate school and says her ultimate career goal is to become a professor of psychology and run her own research lab with a focus on studying diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within higher education, with an emphasis on personal identity and stereotype threat.

This NDEAM blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), Program Officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training program.

Spotlight on FY 2023 Early Career Grant Awardees: Self-Regulation for High School Students with Disabilities

This final post in our series of NCSER blogs highlighting the recently funded Early Career Development and Mentoring Grants Program principal investigators features an interview with Sara Estrapala, assistant research professor in special education at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Dr. Estrapala is conducting research aimed at improving self-regulation of high school students with disabilities and challenging behavior.

How did you become interested in research on self-regulation among high school students with disabilities? 

Headshot of Dr. Sara Estrapala

I worked in a high school as a special education paraeducator prior to my doctoral program and really enjoyed working with that student population. I was responsible for helping students manage themselves in their general education classes. This experience led me to wonder whether there were ways to teach students—particularly those with challenging behaviors— to be more self-sufficient. When I started my doctoral program, I worked on an IES-funded project to develop a self-monitoring app and witnessed the incredible impact that self-monitoring can have on student classroom behaviors. My classroom and research experiences merged into a line of research on self-regulation development for high school students with disabilities.

What is the broader challenge in education that you hope your study will address?

High schools are notoriously difficult settings in which to conduct behavior intervention research, due to increased demands on student and teacher time for academics, organizational complexity (for example, multiple teachers, classrooms, academic departments), and misconceptions about behavior supports for high school aged students. As such, there is a relatively limited literature base for researchers and practitioners related to behavior interventions or supports for high school students. I hope to develop an effective intervention specifically for this context and developmental level while also learning how to effectively conduct rigorous research in this complex and challenging environment. Ultimately, I aim to contribute to our collective knowledge about how to help support high school students with disabilities and challenging behavior. 

What sets apart your self-regulation intervention from other interventions that have been studied?

The most unique aspect of the self-regulation intervention that I am developing is that students have ownership over their self-regulation plan. Typically, students are provided with a self-regulation or self-management plan that is developed by an adult—such as their teacher, counselor, or behavior specialist—with very little opportunity for input. Because self-regulation interventions involve a lot of decisions (such as identifying target behaviors, goals, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation plans), there are numerous opportunities to ask students what they think will improve their classroom behavior. My goal is to develop a framework for teaching students how to identify and define their own behaviors that might be reducing their learning or classroom performance as well as replacement behaviors that will enable them to achieve greater academic success. I believe that including students in the decision-making process will help them better learn why self-regulation is important and how it can help them reach meaningful goals.

What advice do you have for other early career researchers?

Network. Network. Network. Find a variety of colleagues to work with, including those with similar and advanced years of research and practice. I find working with other researchers helps prevent feeling isolated and increases my motivation to keep pushing forward. Joining professional organizations and attending their social events has helped me meet peers with similar research experience and create a network for collaboration. This process also created opportunities for me to meet the faculty mentors of my peers, which, in turn, has helped me establish a larger network of mid- and late-career researchers.

Sara Estrapala demonstrates passion and insight in her research promoting self-regulation among high school students with disabilities. NCSER looks forward to following her career trajectory and the development of this exciting project.

This blog was produced by Emilia Wenzel, NCSER intern and graduate student at University of Chicago. Katherine Taylor is the program officer for NCSER’s Early Career Development and Mentoring program.

The Importance of Training and Mentorship: An Interview with Former IES Postdoctoral Fellow Priscilla Goble

The IES Postdoctoral Research Training Program  funds groups of faculty research trainers who recruit, hire, and prepare postdoctoral researchers to conduct high-quality education research. IES encourages training programs to recruit fellows from underrepresented demographic groups including minority groups and those with disabilities, those coming from smaller or less well-known institutions, or those with non-traditional backgrounds including former practitioners or institutional researchers. Priscilla Goble was a fellow in the IES-funded University of Virginia Post-Doctoral Interdisciplinary Training Program in Education Science and is now an associate professor of human development & family sciences in the School of Family & Consumer Sciences at Texas State University. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked Priscilla to reflect on her career journey and the experiences of Hispanic scholars.

How did you become interested in a career in education research?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the development of young children. I began taking child development and education focused courses as a high school student, and I had a clear plan to become an early childhood educator. As an undergraduate student at Purdue University, I became involved in several research projects, and one led by Dr. Karen Diamond was focused on young children’s development in preschool settings. This experience was fundamental in shifting my career goals from educator to education researcher.

Many young children spend most of their waking hours in education environments, and I became increasingly more curious about the factors that promote positive development within these early education settings. As I pursued my graduate degrees at Arizona State University, I explored child factors (for example, gender), family factors (for example, parent involvement), and contextual factors (for example, educational approaches) to better understand the relation between children’s preschool experiences, developmental gains, and formal school success.

The IES postdoctoral fellowship working with Dr. Robert Pianta in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia solidified my interests and career in education research. My current work focuses on the importance of adult-child relationships and interactions for promoting positive development within education settings. I also have applied research experience developing, implementing, and evaluating early education interventions. I aim to conduct sound education science that can be used to inform practice and positively impact our education systems.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge? 

The biggest challenge I have had to overcome as a researcher is imposter syndrome around academic writing. I never would have imagined that I would achieve tenure at an academic institution because I have never viewed myself as a strong writer. My parents differ in their educational attainment and in their parenting around education. My father, a U.S.-born college graduate and successful entrepreneur, always encouraged good grades, hard work, and academic success. My mother, an immigrant from Panama, never completed college and placed more emphasis on relationships than education. In addition to different educational perspectives, language barriers created obstacles in my education because my primary literacy support at home was from an English as a Second Language (ESL) parent who struggled with English fluency. My verbal scores on the SAT and GRE were consistently low, and from early on, I have struggled with feelings that I am not a strong enough writer to be a successful researcher.

I’m not sure imposter syndrome ever goes away. I still put in work to move past feelings of inadequacy. I began by listening to my peers and mentors when they emphasized my strengths. Through warm and supportive professional relationships, I learned that I am a strong critical thinker, I am well organized, I am passionate about education, and I am persistent. These skills are also important to be a successful researcher and, although I am not the strongest writer, I’ve learned to overcome that challenge. When my imposter syndrome pops up, I remind myself of the growth I’ve made as a writer and of the other skills that have helped me to achieve the career I have now.

As it relates to my research, I empathize with children in similar situations, and as a result, I have developed a professional interest in identifying factors that promote positive educational experiences for ethnic-minority children.

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?

To best inform policies and practices that influence education for diverse children, we need trained scholars who represent diverse identities, value inclusion, and challenge biases. Students who have opportunities to engage in undergraduate research are more likely to attend graduate school and proceed to research-focused careers; thus, the education research community can support underrepresented groups by targeting and enhancing their success through undergraduate research experiences.

As a Minority Serving Institution, Texas State University is dedicated to supporting opportunities for undergraduate involvement in research. For over 5 years, I have been co-leading a program to identify and recruit undergraduate students from underrepresented groups and provide them research training and experience. The goal of this program is to help develop strong connections with school faculty and peers that can build a sense of self-efficacy and provide underrepresented students with human capital and resources to navigate the maze of higher education systems.

I can speak from my own experience that my career trajectory was forever changed because of my engagement in undergraduate research experiences.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

My best piece advice is to believe in yourself. Being a successful researcher is about persistence. You will have failures and receive critical feedback, but if you keep working and believe in yourself, you can achieve your goals. 

The next best piece of advice is to identify strong mentors who believe in you. I cannot overstate the degree to which my success and self-efficacy as an education researcher have been influenced by the strong mentors who believed in me at every stage. Strike up a conversation with someone you admire, be vulnerable in sharing your aspirations, listen to their advice, and believe them when they say that you have what it takes.

Finally, find your community. Join groups of people who come from both similar and different walks of life but who are struggling with the same challenges at the same time. Lean on these people and let them lean on you. Support one another through all the ups and downs and enjoy doing life together.


This guest blog is part of a series in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. It was produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), a program officer in the National Center for Education Research.

Spotlight on FY 2023 Early Career Development Grant Awardees: Supporting HBCU Students with Trauma Informed Online Teaching

This summer, IES awarded the first grant within the Early Career Development and Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions to Dr. Virginia Byrne, an assistant professor at Morgan State University, a historically black university (HBCU) located in Maryland. In recognition of HBCU week, we asked Dr. Byrne to share with us her career journey and her new IES-funded early career project that explores how evidence-based models of trauma informed online teaching (TIOT) may benefit students taking online classes at HBCUs.

Tell us about your current IES early career project.

I began my career as a student affairs practitioner focused on how the Internet was expanding access for activism, community engagement, and higher education, particularly among students of minoritized and marginalized groups. Now I study online teaching and learning in higher education with a focus on which students tend to thrive in online classes versus those who struggle.

My IES early career project is driven by the urgent need to understand how to best support the academic success of HBCU students in online learning environments. Today’s college students are likely to have survived some form of traumatic or adverse event either prior to or during their undergraduate enrollment, including the complexities of grief, illness, financial difficulties, and social disruption such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, many trauma-affected students struggle to engage in traditional school activities, regulate their effort and motivation, authentically participate in classroom discussions, and successfully graduate. To ensure that trauma-affected students are persisting in their college courses, educators are encouraged to adopt trauma-informed teaching practices.

While research exists on the value of trauma-informed teaching in face-to-face K-12 classrooms and, to a lesser extent, higher education contexts, it has yet to rigorously explore the impact of these trauma-informed practices on online college students. It is still unclear how trauma-informed teaching principles align with the leading online teaching literature, how students feel about these practices, or how they relate to achievement and persistence outcomes, particularly among trauma-affected students who might struggle with effort regulation. My three-year project, The Learning and Engaging at a Distance (LEAD) Initiative, seeks to fill this gap by posing an evidence-based model of TIOT practices in higher education and rigorously exploring how these practices might benefit HBCU students in online classes. I hypothesize that the adoption of TIOT practices will be helpful to all students, but especially those who are trauma-affected with reduced effort regulation. 

What are trauma-informed online teaching practices?

A trauma-informed approach to teaching consists of shifts in education practices, pedagogies, and policies as faculty learn about the role of trauma in students’ lives and how classrooms can perpetuate it. Trauma-informed teaching emphasizes an anti-racist, asset-based approach to provide all students with trauma-informed care, not just those who report their traumatic experiences (a universal approach). In my current IES project, I weave together the online learning, college teaching, and trauma-informed teaching literatures to pose the TIOT model, an evidence-based model consisting of seven related principles:

  1. Collaboration and Mutuality: Faculty welcome student input in collaboration and decision-making to share power and co-construct knowledge.
  2. Emotional, Social, and Academic Safety: Faculty foster an online learning environment that respects the need for safety, respect, and authenticity.
  3. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice: Faculty make space for and empower students to make choices so that the course is relevant to their professional interests and aligned with their personal development goals.
  4. Resilience, Growth, and Change: Faculty take an anti-deficit, growth-oriented approach by forwarding the idea that all students are emerging scholars capable of learning and succeeding. They use formative feedback to cultivate a community of learning and to reinforce self-efficacy.
  5. Social Justice: Faculty cultivate an equitable and anti-oppressive learning environment that prioritizes social justice in the course design and curriculum.
  6. Support and Connection: Faculty provide students with structures and resources to support their community building, academic achievement, and professional development.
  7. Trustworthiness and Transparency: Faculty foster a sense of trust and transparency among students by providing clear expectations, being reliable and consistent, and establishing healthy boundaries.

I theorize that by adopting a universal, trauma-informed approach to online teaching, instructors can create a more supportive and equity-centered learning environment for all students to thrive.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from HBCUs who are pursuing a career in education research?

First, recognize the strengths of your institution as an HBCU. For example, my project leverages Morgan State University’s focus on high-touch teaching both in-person and online. By emphasizing what our faculty are already doing well and building on our existing expertise, I was able to gain campus buy-in on my project. Remember that being at an HBCU is an asset.

Second, even if your campus is small and research is not on the top of everyone’s to-do list, there are probably faculty who are doing rigorous research projects. Find them, even if they are outside of your field or discipline. Ask them how they found support on campus to do this work. Who is their go-to person for budget questions? For grant submission issues? Is there any unadvertised money for professional development? There are likely those on campus who want to mentor emerging scholars on research and grant-writing, even if it is not their full-time job. Reach out to them. 

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from HBCUs?

The broader community often misses out on the tremendous excellence that HBCU faculty and graduate student researchers have to offer. There is a LOT of excellence here!

That said, we are limited by a lack of administrative research support and training, such as grant-writing support staff, in-house budget teams, graduate assistantship funding, high-quality financial software, and conference travel funding. This is caused, in part, by historic and systemic underfunding. Members of the broader community could better support HBCU researchers by educating themselves on the funding histories of the public HBCUs in their states and talking about it with colleagues, reaching out to HBCU faculty to build collaborative research partnerships, recruiting HBCU students to join their research teams as interns, research assistants, and post-docs, and sharing access to existing resources on the hidden curriculum around research (for example, how to write a grant proposal, how to craft a budget, how to effectively manage a large grant).

Incredible research is already happening at HBCUs. These are just a few ways that the education research community could get more involved.


Virginia L. Byrne, PhD, is an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Morgan State University in the School of Education and Urban Studies. Her research falls at the intersection of higher education, online learning, and the learning sciences to investigate issues of climate and equity in online and technology-enhanced learning environments. Dr. Byrne earned her PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park in technology, learning and leadership and her master’s degree in student affairs from Florida State University.

This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), program officer for the Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions (Early Career MSI). This program supports grants that prepare faculty at minority-serving institutions to conduct high-quality education research that advances knowledge within the field of education sciences and addresses issues important to education policymakers and practitioners. In FY 2024, IES is accepting applications for the Early Career MSI program as well as the new Early Career Development and Mentoring Program for Education Research.

 

Spotlight on FY 2023 Early Career Development Grant Awardees: Supporting Latine Transborder Caregivers and Their Young Children with or at Risk for Autism

NCSER continues its series spotlighting the recently funded Early Career Development and Mentoring Grants Program principal investigators with an interview with Ana Dueñas, assistant professor in special education at San Diego State University. Dr. Dueñas is conducting research aimed at improving outcomes for Latine transborder caregivers and their young children with or at risk for autism. We are pleased that this blog also honors Hispanic Heritage Month

How did you become interested in studying early intervention for Latine children on the autism spectrum?

Headshot of Ana Dueñas

As a first-generation Mexican cis-gender woman who was raised in a bicultural transborder community alongside the San Diego/Tijuana border, I learned to navigate a shifting identity—speaking English and Spanish fluently to feel accepted by both communities and managing schooling and housing across borders. Like many other children of Mexican immigrants, I served as a translator, social worker, and advocate for my parents. These experiences, along with my sensitivity to the unique needs of this population, inform how I approach community-engaged research. I am also very aware of how the biases that my education and training in special education and applied behavior analysis influence my approach to intervention research, particularly in light of the history of deficit-driven rhetoric and a medical model of disability in these fields. I aim to be mindful of the power differential that is often associated with higher education, social class, and researcher institutions in my interactions with the families I support.

My interest in building partnerships with Latine caregivers of children with autism began 10 years ago. Earlier in my career, I was a social worker for the California Regional Centers, a non-profit organization that provides services, advocacy, and support to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. There I gained firsthand awareness of the behavioral health disparities faced by historically minoritized families (delayed diagnosis and access to culturally relevant services). Now, as a junior faculty member and researcher, I bring these experiences to my work and hope to form genuine relationships with the Latine community to better inform autism intervention research.

What are some of the unique challenges and needs of your study population?

I hope to understand these issues in depth more throughout this project. What we know from the literature about the Latine community more broadly is that they face significant disparities in access to timely diagnosis and treatment for their autistic children. This racial disparity is exacerbated in rural communities, or “service deserts” like the Imperial Valley of California, where this project is situated. The transborder community as a subgroup of the larger Latine community has very specific needs that may create a mismatch in evidence-based practices. Some points of mismatch are logistical and environmental—living and working across borders—which may lead to limited compliance, attendance, or engagement in intervention. Other points of mismatch may occur because Latine families may have a history of working with staff that lack cultural competence and therefore have few positive experiences receiving early intervention services. Further, though my project doesn’t focus on families who are undocumented, transborder families may be dealing with unique issues related to immigration status—threats of deportation, housing insecurity, and limited access to physical and mental healthcare. 

What broader impact are you hoping to achieve with your research?

Through my research, I hope to address the behavioral education disparities among marginalized populations, as they undermine the quality of life and opportunities for autistic children and their families, particularly among families exposed to vulnerable circumstances. My study addresses one small component of the many disparities that occur across a continuum from identification to treatment to improve the match between evidence-based interventions and the specific needs of marginalized individuals. Many interventions were developed with minimal input from ethnic and/or racially marginalized communities. Though there continues to be an implementation fidelity versus cultural adaptation debate, without sensitivity and responsiveness to the unique needs of communities, interventions may fail to be adopted. In my work, I begin with an assessment to ensure that the intervention is relevant to community needs and desires.

What advice do you have for other early career researchers?

Don’t give up. Understand and harness your value. Follow your instinct. Seek mentorship.

Ana Dueñas demonstrates passion and meaningful personal connection to her research. We are excited to follow her work and see what lies ahead in her academic career trajectory in special education.

This blog was produced by Emilia Wenzel, NCSER intern and graduate student at University of Chicago. Katherine Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov) is the program officer for NCSER’s Early Career Development and Mentoring program.