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Nicole Gardner-Neblett is an advanced research scientist with the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. She is also a research assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. Her research focuses on investigating factors that promote children’s language and literacy development.

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A doctor living in New York — specifically on Park Avenue, with a French poodle.

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose psychology as your subject of study.

As an undergraduate, I volunteered to work on a research study led by a developmental psychologist investigating the link between children’s ethnic identity and academic achievement. I remember shopping for skin-colored paper to use in the study to assess children’s perception of their skin color as an element of their identity. I was fascinated by the idea of quantifying identity, making links from identity to achievement, interpreting the findings, and making recommendations to teachers and parents. After that, I knew that I wanted to study how children develop, and how to use what we learn to support their development through changes to policy and practice.

Researchers are problem-solvers. Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

In December 2014, I learned about a grant competition that fit perfectly with my work. But the grant activities were restricted to a county that was about two hours away — and I knew no one who could help with data collection. The people in my department didn’t have any contacts there, so I conducted an Internet search of different agencies that might be potential partners and then started cold calling. After a few dead-ends, I reached the executive director of one of the agencies, and he was enthusiastic about partnering on the proposal. The staff and I came up with a collaborative proposal that helped us share the resources of the grant to achieve both of our goals. That cold-call led to a win-win solution, a funded grant, and a two-year-long collaboration. I learned to never be afraid to reach out to strangers — they might become my next best partner!

What are your passions outside of science? And why do you feel it’s important to have them?

I love to sew just about anything that involves fabric, needles, and thread. It is important for me to have a hobby that provides me with a creative outlet and a tangible end-product that is both useful and visually appealing. Plus, it gives me something over which I have absolute control!

Part of Endeavors’ magazine’s Women in Science Wednesday series, which highlights UNC researchers at all levels of their careers across dozens of fields. From nursing to economics to computer science, women at Carolina excel in research, mentorship, and advocacy. Click here to nominate an exceptional scientist.


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