Volcano Tragedy

I am currently in Guatemala again, having returned to this beautiful country with the University of Maryland Language Science Center’s Summer Field School. For lack of a non-religious word to describe my sentiments, I have been blessed with this opportunity to return and continue my research on the acquisition of place value in Mayan bilingual schools.

Unfortunately, the research that I came here to conduct (and the related joy I feel) has been completely overshadowed by tragedy. At the one week mark of the Field School, nearby Volcán Fuego erupted, covering a town of about 14,000 people with ash and lava and pyroclastic flow. A little more than 3000 were evacuated, over 70 were killed, hundreds are injured, and thousands are displaced. Luckily I am about 20 miles away, far enough that I have not had to witness destruction firsthand, but the stories on social media and the news here are horrifying – orphaned children, bodies covered in ash, people desperately searching for their missing families, evacuated homes sacked by looters… The situation here is dire.

The Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, revealed that there is no government emergency fund as previously thought. As such, donations to relief efforts are desperately needed.

My fellow Field School attendees and I have been doing what we can. Luckily a dollar goes far here so we were able to purchase and donate pairs of boots for the firefighters (who’s boots are burning and melting during rescue operations), clothes for the displaced, as well as sanitary items like soap, toothpaste, and diapers. But we college students and local impoverished indigenous people can only do so much.

If you have the means to donate to relief efforts, please do so. I have listed below several very worthy donation sites.

Habitat for Humanity Guatemala

GoFundMe Campaign by Michael Estill

Other GoFundMe Verified Campaigns


Second Year Project Proposal

Part of obtaining a PhD in one of the experimental psychology programs at Utah State is delivering a project proposal at the beginning of your second year, then defending the project at the beginning of the third year. The rationale behind this is this: after you’ve been in graduate school for a year, you should probably have some valid research ideas and be able to design an experiment around them, carry that experiment out over the next year, then show what you did.

I’ve just started my second year in the Neuroscience PhD at USU and therefore just spent a good portion of the summer preparing for my second year project. It’s based on a research idea that I’ve had in the works for a long time- in fact, I came into my interview at USU knowing that I wanted to do exactly this research. I’ve spent a year filling in the blanks in my own understanding of the research question, paring down aspects that were too ambitious for my current abilities, and submitting the idea to review, feedback, and approval processes.

Honestly, I’m extremely proud of it. I love my research, I love talking about it, and I love that I get to actually do it as a job for (at least) the next few years. My proposal was this morning, and I’m happy to be able to share the video with you now.

Title: Numerical Cognition in Bilingual Education: Language Effects on Place Value Knowledge and Automaticity of Processing Two Digit Numbers

Abstract:  This study examines the behavioral differences in bilingual children who speak languages with different numerical base systems. The proposed sample is 75 eight-year-olds with no bilingual experience prior to attending first grade, including 50 children participating in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese bilingual education and 25 children in monolingual general education. The sample will be chosen using purposive sampling due to local availability of bilingual education classrooms. This study uses a between-groups design. Measures included are Dot Number Stroop, Panamath, Number Line Estimation, and Test of Early Mathematics Abilities (TEMA-3). Students participating in Mandarin dual language immersion classrooms are hypothesized to have decreased reaction time on tests of automaticity of processing (Dot Number Stroop) as well as increased scores on a standardized math (TEMA-3), better-developed concepts of place value (Number Line Estimation), and increased scores on a test of ability to quickly judge quantities (Panamath). Results of this study will add a new perspective on cross-cultural and cross-linguistic development of numerical cognition.

I was a little nervous starting off, but calmed down and got into my groove a few slides into it. All my practice presentations that I recorded and listened to for self-feedback really paid off, I think. Even the questions that were asked at the end of the presentation were much easier than I expected them to be (though they aren’t included in the video).

Now that I’ve presented this, the next step is to start actually collecting some of this data. Time to start talking to second graders about math!

Looking Forward to Year Two

How has it been over a month since I got back from Guatemala? How is this possible? School is starting back at the end of this month, and I’m a little intimidated and a lot excited. The lack of structure this summer has been refreshing, but it’s also a little bit too… unstructured! I miss having classes and other people around in the lab. But Year Two is starting so soon! It’s year two out of five(ish?) and it’s going to be a big one. There’s a lot of research responsibilities this year- I’m proposing my second year project on Sep 8, and then I’ve got to collect at least 75 participants of data and analyze all of it and make it make some kind of sense before next September. Of course, I did scale down my project from almost 300 participants in 5 groups so it wouldn’t actually be physically impossible to complete in a year. It’s going be made pretty complicated by the fact that I’m conducting this research with second graders and can’t collect data while they’re in class, but the class that I’ll be TAing (Psychology Statistics) meets 4 days a week right after the elementary schools let out. Hopefully I can use my new powers as Lab Manager to delegate some of this data collection to some of my undergraduate minions. Because I have minions now. I’m also ostensibly in charge of the two fresh graduate students, which is somewhat intimidating. I don’t think that I know enough about what I’m doing to be in charge of anyone else also doing it. There’s also the research that I’m helping a professor with (as a paid Graduate Research Assistant!); it’s related to mine and uses several of the same measures. With luck there will be a few publications in there. Then there’s coursework- I’ve got three classes on the docket: Educational Neuroscience, Math Curriculum Research and Development, and Cognitive Behavior Seminar. I dropped a class to get down to 7 credit hours- there’s too much else going on to be able to keep sane while also overloading on credits! I’ve also signed up for a not-for-credit ePrime course so I’ll know what I’m doing when I set up psychological experiments with the software I just spent a load of grant money on. I’m also doing some web site development for the Safe Passage project, and leading the Neurodiversity Group every other week.

I’m just hoping I’ll actually have free time to go hiking and snowboarding this semester on top of all of these school responsibilities and being a good mom. Good thing Catie is already signed up for snowboarding lessons so she can come with me to the slopes this winter!

It’s gonna be a good year. Very busy, but good too.

Field Work Day 27: Leaving

I’m writing this while procrastinating packing. It’s a necessary procrastination, as much of my wardrobe is still dripping wet on the clothesline from being washed 2 days ago. Unless the sun makes a particularly convincing appearance today, I may be traveling to Florida with a trash bag full of wet clothes in my luggage. 

Laundry issues aside, I’m really going to miss Patzún. The little town has come to feel like home over the last month. Walking everywhere, greeting almost everyone as you pass with a “¡Xseq’ër k’a!” or “¡Xqa q’ij k’a!”, starting to recognize people as the days go by, developing favorite afternoon hangouts in the central park or the little café, learning where the good bread and cakes are sold… Knowing a town in detail makes it grow on you. 

(I can’t embed these photos from my phone so you’ll have to wait until I have wifi for this to look pretty)

I feel like I have family here- two sisters, an aunt, and a nephew. They’ve helped me recover from illness twice, included me in family events, and chatted with me around the dinner table. We’ve talked about divorces, boyfriends, kids, politics, earthquakes and hurricanes, differences between “here” and “there”… I’ve played soccer and “caballeros y princesas” with Daniel, and with matchbox cars, play dough, the games on my phone… I’m going to miss them. 

I’m going to miss the field school folks too, all dozen-plus students and the Kaqchikel teachers and the faculty involved. We’ve all made good friends and come together to help each other as best we can, even when our research interests are different. 

But I’ll be back again next year in June. 

Field Work Recipe: Lava-roasted Marshmallows and Chocolate Chip Cookie Smores

Prep Time: 4~ hours (2 hours driving from Patzún, 2 hours hiking, 5 minutes cook time)


  • 1 accessible heat vent on an active volcano (I used Pacaya)
  • Stick for roasting marshmallows
  • Hiking shoes/boots
  • Spending money for the Lava Store
  • Drinking water (and lots of it!)


  • Marshmallows
  • Chocolate chip cookies


  1. Acquire your chocolate chip cookies and marshmallows a day in advance. If you can’t make your own, store-bought is fine (Maxi-Despensa in Patzún carries Jet-Puft and Chips-ahoy).
  2. Rise at 4am and catch the 4:30 chartered bus from Patzún to Pacaya.
  3. Watch the sunrise over the milpas in Patzicia.
  4. Upon arrival at Pacaya, avoid the offers of “taxis” (horses)  at the base of the volcano. That’s cheating. Take the kids up on the offer of a hiking stick though.
  5. Find your guide. He should be wearing a green vest and a Parque Nacional Pacaya badge.
  6. Set off up the volcano for 2.6km at 60°F in June, temperature may vary depending on season.
  7. Take pictures of Volcanes Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango if it’s not too cloudy. The view from the western face is to die for.
  8. Collect some sticks for your marshmallow roasting if your guide doesn’t. He should though.
  9. Watch out when the ground gets gravelly and ashy. Your feet can and will slip around a bit.
  10. Arrive at the lava flow and the Lava Store and check out some surprisingly cool lava jewelry.
  11. Your guide should point out the best heat vent- it’s close to the grassy hill on the north side of the lava flow.
  12. Spear your marshmallows and hold the over the heat vent for a few minutes, to your desired level of meltiness. Watch out- its hot!
  13. Take two cookies and squish a melted marshmallow between the two.
  14. Enjoy!
  15. Hike the rest of the way up the volcano (it’s REALLY steep and ashy here so watch your step), take pictures of the smoking cone, then hike back down!