People of I-LABS: Allison Master

I-LABSPeople of I-LABS

In the “People of I-LABS” series, we get to know individuals from our team. The first post in this series shines the spotlight on Allison Master, a research scientist specializing in social cognitive development.

Vibrant, super-smart and caring: these are just a few of the qualities that describe the dozens of interdisciplinary researchers at I-LABS. Their innovative ideas and technological savviness help drive the Institute’s reputation as a world leader in child development and brain science.

And their kindness, professionalism and sense of humor greet all of the hundreds of families that volunteer each year for studies at I-LABS.

In the “People of I-LABS” series, we get to know the research scientists, post-doctoral fellows and other researchers who make up the elite team at I-LABS.

Allison Master, Ph.D.

Allison Master is a research scientist working with Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS. She’s worked at I-LABS since August 2011 and studies social cognitive development, how children’s identity affects their motivation in school and how to motivate girls in STEM.

Please tell us about yourself.

I grew up in a log cabin up a dirt road in the mountains of North Carolina. I love reading (especially sci fi/fantasy novels), playing board games with my husband, and being silly with my two kids.

What is the goal of your research?

I want to understand what drives students: what makes a child take on a challenging puzzle and not give up, or what sparks a passion for math. And my real goal is to figure out how to help students: how to help girls counteract the belief that they don’t belong in STEM, how to help children see that math is fun, etc.

What research questions are you working on now?

How does being part of a group change children’s motivation in STEM? Can we change children’s stereotypes that math, science, and technology are for boys? How can we make girls more interested in computer science?

What’s your most significant career accomplishment so far?

It’s hard to say because my accomplishments would not have been possible without the fantastic research mentors that I’ve had (Andy Meltzoff and Sapna Cheryan at UW, and Carol Dweck, Greg Walton, and Geoff Cohen at Stanford). I’ve also had many wonderful research assistants who have helped me accomplish so much (including Craig Maddox and Joy Mendoza here at I-LABS).

If I have to pick one thing, it would probably be my paper in Science (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006). It’s had a huge impact on the field (more than 600 citations) and represents the power of psychological research to have a positive impact on students’ lives. [Editor’s note: Learn more about the paper, “Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention,” on Science magazine’s website.]

What’s your favorite part of working at I-LABS?

I love that it’s a place where everyone values research as much as I do.

What is your most exciting memory from being in the lab?

My dissertation used storybooks to motivate preschool children to choose challenging puzzles. It was a longitudinal study, so I worked with each child several times. One day I was in the lab school at Stanford getting ready to bring a little boy to the research room. Another child nearby was trying to get a basketball through a hoop, but she couldn’t do it, so she decided to quit. He called out to her, “You have to keep trying!” 

Then he turned to me and said, “Remember the book?  If you keep trying the same thing, you learn that thing and if you keep trying the same thing over and over, you get better at that same thing. Then you can do whatever you want better and better.”

That was exactly the message I was trying to send, and I loved hearing him teach it to other children.

How can people use your discoveries in their own lives?

To motivate yourself, remember that ability is something you can grow, like a muscle—you get better at things when you try hard, put in the effort, and use the right strategies.And, if you know any girls who might be interested in STEM, talk to them about it! Make sure that they understand that it involves opportunities to be creative and help people, and that many different kinds of people can be computer scientists and engineers.

Has your personal life shaped your research interests? If so, how?

I was always an overachiever, and I was drawn to the study of motivation to try to figure out why some people are more motivated than others, and what we can do to help motivate students so that they love learning as much as I did (and still do!).