Sara Hart’s work is highlighted by bringing together theories and methods from developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, education, and behavioral genetics, to answer the fundamental question of how and why students differ in their reading and math development. Her work intersects these domains, allowing her to apply new ways of thinking to a given field, using advanced methods. For example, a well replicated finding is that children’s reading performance is approximately 50-60% heritable at any given point, but proper longitudinal modeling had never been done before to examine change in reading performance. When she used methods from developmental psychology and applied them to behavioral genetics, she found that indeed where children start is 50-60% heritable, but how children grow across elementary school is actually much less heritable and instead influenced by environments that make siblings more alike (the “shared environment”), such as the home and school.
Another interdisciplinary research thread she has done considerable work on is applying developmental psychology theory related to how contexts influence children’s development, to behavioral genetics modeling, to better understand what the specific environments are that influence children’s reading and math development. For example, she extended the conceptualization of socioeconomic status (SES), past family-level SES, which had been the only focus of the behavioral genetics field, to school-level SES. She found that school-level SES moderated the heritability of children’s reading skills, above and beyond family-level SES.
A newer area of work is considering ways we can use what we know from twin studies to actually inform every day educational practice, and to help with the early identification of children who will struggle in school, which she calls the “Precision Education Initiative”. It is her belief that personalized education, the idea that education will be tailored to the individual student, is the future of education.
Outside of her content area expertise, Sara Hart is committed to using more rigorous open science practices herself, and encouraging her fields to invest in open science. She currently has a federal grant to build an open data repository to store behavioral data related to research on learning disabilities and cognitive development. The data repository will be seeded with data from over 20,000 children, measured extensively over time, representing over $150 million dollars of federal investment. These data were not previously openly available, and will be a huge boost to the field, especially for junior scientists who often don’t have access to such rich data.
Sara Hart has published across many different fields, and has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. She has won prestigious early career awards, including The Rebecca L. Sandak Young Investigator Award from the Society for the Scientific Studies of Reading, the L. Fuller & J.P. Scott Memorial Award for Outstanding Scientific Accomplishments from the Behavioral Genetics Association, and the Rising Star Award from the Association for Psychological Science. Despite the research successes, she believes her most important work is in research dissemination and in training and mentorship.