This summer, Nia-Renee Cooper ’18 interned at the UCLA Lab School, an innovative school for children ages 4–12 that is part of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. A neuroscience major, Cooper’s interest is not in children’s education per se, but in neurological processes, diseases, and disorders—an area that has fascinated her since she was in high school. But, in her role as a research assistant, she is engaged in both; Cooper is working with Dr. Connie Kasari, a professor of psychological studies in education and psychiatry, on Remaking Recess, a project that seeks to develop classroom activities to improve the learning and communication skills of preschool-aged children with autism.
“I’ve always had a passion for working with children, and being able to incorporate my intellectual interest in neuroscience into that has been great,” she says. “It’s interesting having the children with autism involved in an inclusive environment with so-called neurotypically developing children because it allows all children involved to gain understanding of each other.”
In her role as a researcher, Cooper observes the children as they interact with their peers and learn through art projects, writing exercises, and other classroom and social activities. She documents her day-to-day observations as well as tracks the progress of each child’s gross and fine motor skills and their ability to communicate with others.
For Cooper, it has been gratifying to see the children increase their learning abilities and form relationships with each other in real time.
“As the day progresses, and as the program has progressed, it has been amazing to see the children continuing to develop their independence,” she says.
Cooper first worked with Professor Kasari on a similar project during the summer prior to her senior year of high school. After deciding to major in neuroscience, Cooper again reached out to Kasari, who offered her an internship with the Remaking Recess team. In addition to conducting research, Cooper is participating in behavioral intervention and neuroscience classes taught by Kasari. She hopes to become a pharmacist after graduation from Scripps College.
Cooper adds, “Being able to participate in the research process has been very enlightening and gratifying overall. While my direct interest is in the medicinal interventions that could help a person with a neurological disease or disorder, this internship opportunity has broadened my interest into the research of how a drug or medication could be used in addition to non-medical intervention and treatment.”