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PhD student in clinical psychology receives prestigious Vanier Award

Jessica Switzer is studying how children reason and make sense of their world 


Jessica Switzer, a PhD student in clinical psychology is the recipient of a prestigious Vanier Award.

By Jennifer Allford

There is a developmental change between 14- and 15-months of age in children’s ability to categorize the vast amount of information they’re getting from the world. Specifically, researcher and Vanier recipient Jessica Switzer has found a change in how children “use distinct labels to form categories and make inferences based on this categorical information”.

The finding was part of Switzer’s Masters thesis that explored how children use labels to guide their reasoning skills. “Inductive reasoning helps children organize their world, which allows them to store and retrieve information more efficiently,” she says. “And infants rely on different cues to inductively reason about categories such as shared shape and different labels to categorize objects.”

As adults we understand that while bats and birds both fly and have other similarities, they belong to two distinct categories. Switzer’s work focuses on how and when children learn to make these sorts of distinctions.

She will continue investigating “children’s categorization and inductive reasoning abilities in a social context” in her PhD in the Faculty of Arts, which she begins this fall.

As part of her graduate studies in clinical psychology in Susan Graham’s Language and Cognitive Development Lab, Switzer is also doing a practicum at the Alberta Children’s Hospital two days a week. She’s also collaborating on a project that’s investigating how infants use gestures in their vocabulary development.

Her research is adding to an important body of knowledge in childhood development. “Current research is still investigating the underlying mechanisms that guide infants’ inductive reasoning,” she says. “There is some debate as to what role labels have in guiding children’s inductive inferences and my research contributes to this debate.”

Receiving the prestigious Vanier Award, which amounts to $150,000 over three years, will provide the “financial freedom and confidence to conduct my research and continue my community involvement,” says Switzer. “After the initial shock had subsided, I felt deeply honoured to receive the award and know that other academics recognized me as a leader both within the University of Calgary and in my community.”

Switzer is ready to get started on her PhD after spending a few weeks volunteering at an Ontario camp for children with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and high function autism spectrum disorder. “Each summer I come to camp ready to teach our children new skills, but what amazes me most is how much the children teach me,” she says. “They also remind me to have a little fun!”