The early childhood development expert has had a long career in a variety of institutions and research programs.
Ann Mastergeorge spent much of her time as a UCLA doctoral student in her car, driving from one Southern California house to the next. In each home was a child who wasn't developing typically but also hadn't been diagnosed with a developmental disorder. No one had answers for the worried, sometimes overwhelmed, parents.
Mastergeorge spent hours in each home, talking to parents and children about the ambiguous diagnosis and how it affected the family's lives and culture. She observed playtime, bathtime, dinnertime and bedtime, taking notes of the changes that accompany a child with a disability.
That is just one of the projects in Mastergeorge's 20-year career in developmental psychology that led her to Texas Tech University, where she became chairwoman of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences on July 1.
“We're very well-positioned,” Mastergeorge said. “I can really see a vision of where we can go in terms of building a top rated HDFS program.”
Mastergeorge earned her bachelor's degree in speech communication from California State University-Fullerton, her master's degree in communication disorders from the University of Washington and her doctorate in educational psychology with an emphasis on developmental psychology from the University of California-Los Angeles.
Prior to coming to Lubbock she was chairwoman of the early childhood initiative and assistant director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families at the University of Arizona. She also worked for, and still is affiliated with, the MIND Institute at the University of California-Davis, which focuses on the study of neurodevelopment disorders.
Mastergeorge published dozens of papers and has received grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, the MIND Institute, the U.S. Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Spencer Foundation and other statewide and federal agencies.
Mastergeorge is part of the Texas state team for autism and the University Centers of Excellence on Development Disabilities and hopes to be affiliated with the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research on campus. That, among other programs, contributed to her decision to come to Texas Tech.
“I had no idea of the resources available here,” Mastergeorge said. “For me, what was a huge draw was just all the infrastructure that was here.”
Human Sciences Dean Linda Hoover said they are looking forward to the expertise Mastergeorge brings to the position.
“Dr. Mastergeorge is uniquely qualified to lead our Department of Human Development and Family Studies as she has had significant administrative and grant-funded experience,” she said. “Both our existing and new faculty will directly benefit from her guidance and mentorship. I know that she will provide strong leadership to the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
“Based on all of these factors, Dr. Mastergeorge's efforts will enable the department to increase its contributions to the field of human development and family studies.”
Most of Mastergeorge's research is applied, such as Project Child at UCLA. Her two main areas of applied research relate to the risk and early intervention for young children with disabilities and looking at risk factors for children who live in poverty.
Her autism focus, which she will continue at Texas Tech, has been on parent-mediated interventions when a child is a year old or sometimes younger. It allows a parent to be the facilitator when interacting with a child with autism or other developmental disorder. A therapist is present as well, ensuring the parent is following best practices, but the parent is taking the lead.
“We can look at risk behaviors very, very young and intervene very early and really change the trajectory of the development,” she said. “We know we can change the way the brain is developing based on these early interventions.”
Her other area of applied research is poverty-centered; Mastergeorge looks at the risk factors a child living in poverty experiences. She focuses on low-income families because although poverty itself does not guarantee negative outcomes in the future, it often comes with other risk factors, such as untreated maternal depression, food insecurity and poor parenting strategies.
At Arizona, she was part of a grant-funded program called Strengthening Families that focused on families of preschool-age children. The grant provided dinner for the entire family before each session, then the parents learned about verbal problem-solving and other positive parenting strategies.
“For many it was a night they could bring their whole family to have a meal,” she said. “They showed up to all the sessions because of that.”
She also works extensively with Early Head Start and is part of an Early Head Start consortium at Harvard University. Much of this research focuses on finding and promoting strategies leading to positive long-term outcomes for young children as well as positive family well-being.
“We focus on the family,” she said. “It's not just a focus on the child.”
Additionally, Mastergeorge has studied children 1-3 years old and their interactions with their mothers over time. She tracks emotional availability, maternal sensitivity and responsivity. Many of these mothers don't know how important play and responsive communication with their children is relative to important developmental milestones and school readiness. By monitoring and modeling better parenting these parents can become more effective.
Her final area of research is in the lab. She studies gaze and gaze-shifting behaviors in infants. A current study tracks infant eye gaze – where their pupils focus when watching interactive movie clips. Children who develop typically tend to focus most on the person speaking or something moving, like a ball. A child developing atypically may stare into one corner or focus on a character's headband.
This research has been developed to understand typical and atypical developmental trajectories, as gaze shifting in early development is an important precursor for early language development and social interaction.
Her views on leadership
Mastergeorge has met all of the faculty members, but she plans to meet individually with each in the coming weeks to talk about his or her research, individual and department goals and how the department should move forward. She's also planning a faculty retreat for August.
The faculty members will help create a mission and strategic plan for the department, which will align with the college's strategic plan, which aligns with the university's strategic plan of becoming a Tier One research institution. This will include grants, recruitment efforts and collaborating with faculty in other colleges and universities throughout Texas and the nation.
“It's very important for us not to be seeking grants just with each other or on our own, but to really be collaborative with other disciplines,” she said.
One factor that drew her to Texas Tech was the opportunity to collaborate with other experts and researchers, including the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood grant, the Burkhart Center, the Institute for Measurement, Methodology, Analysis & Policy, the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and the Child Development Resource Center and Early Head Start programs.
Mastergeorge also is the director of the Institute for Children and Families, and she wants to increase research under its umbrella, especially given the breadth of expertise among faculty members in the department. Part of that will include her work with Early Head Start.