Eva McAlister López: 2022 Undergraduate Research Excellence Award Winner

FABBS is delighted to highlight the exceptional work of young scholars. The FABBS Undergraduate Research Excellence Awards acknowledge and honor undergraduate student investigators who have conducted research of superior quality  with broader societal impact.

The opportunity to nominate students for these awards is offered to our Departmental and Division Affiliates. This year, nominations were reviewed by a committee of current and former FABBS Board members, including Drs.Jeffrey Schall, Frances Gabbay, and Adriana Galván. The committee was impressed with the strength of the applicants and inspired by the preview of the future of our sciences.

We are excited to introduce you to Eva McAlister López, winner of an Undergraduate Research Excellence Award.


Q: Please introduce yourself (School, grad year, hometown, etc)

Hi there! My name is Eva and I recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a dual degree in Biopsychology, Cognition & Neuroscience and French Literature. Although I call Ann Arbor, Michigan my home, my family lives in Spain, so I’ve spent much of my life split between two homes, really, Ann Arbor and Sevilla. I grew up speaking Spanish, learned English by default, and have long cherished the duality of my relationship with language.

Q: Please tell us a little bit about your area of research?

I was finally able to give this appreciation and curiosity for bilingualism a direction when I stumbled upon my research lab four years ago. In my lab we study how bilingual children learn to read and how they develop different literacy skills that then transfer from one language to another. My research focuses specifically on the skill of morphological awareness, which refers to an individual’s sensitivity to the smallest units of meaning in language. These units are called morphemes. For instance, take the word unthinkable. This word can be broken down into 3 units of meaning: un- (which is a prefix denoting negation), think (the root and fundamental concept of the word), and -able (the suffix that transforms our word into an adjective).

The ability to extract these units of meaning from words is linked to all kinds of success outcomes in literacy development. If the goal of reading is to be able to look at printed words and interpret meaning, morphological awareness has to be right at the center of how it all works! But how might learning two languages influence how children recognize units of meaning? In this thesis, I asked two questions: First, how is morphological awareness associated with reading skills within a single language? And second, does morphological awareness transfer to impact reading in the other language?

Q: What inspired your interest in this topic?

At first, I was drawn to learn more about bilingualism because it would mean learning more about myself. And in this discovery, I realized that studying a bilingual population also goes far beyond my own individual story. In our increasingly globalized world, the proportion of people that communicate in more than one language is rapidly multiplying. And yet, most school curricula and research on child literacy development is informed by monolingual models, which means that a growing number of children have to learn in a system that does not cater to their specific strengths or needs. I became passionate in my research exploring bilingual models of literacy development because I thought perhaps I could learn for myself what these differences are and help bridge the gap between academia and the practical world.

Q: Any exciting or surprising findings in your research?

I was surprised to find that, looking at how skills transferred between languages, primarily Spanish (the heritage language) transferred to support English reading outcomes (the language of instruction), and not the other way around. This means that if the heritage language is maintained, supported and valued, then a bilingual child will see gains in their language of instruction. I find this result to be an exciting validation of the bilingual child. Not only does it show no evidence for bilingualism-related delays in language development, but it highlights the crucial role that heritage language can play in advancing the language of instruction, if only given the proper support. This finding challenges the stigmas that surround bilingualism and point to a way forward in reforming school reading curricula such that bilingual children are able to maximize rather than marginalize their development.

Q: This award recognizes the broader impact of your work. What are the societal implications from your work?

Perhaps my answer to the previous question mostly applies to this question as well, but to sum it up again, my research challenges misconceptions, stereotypes and stigmas surrounding bilingualism. It seeks to establish a better understanding of how reading development unfurls in the bilingual child such that school curricula, parental strategies and popular thought can be informed by more than just a default monolingual model of reading development.

Q: What‘s next? Do you plan to continue your education/research on this subject?

I recently submitted a tangential research paper for review which expands my thesis models to include additional reading skills like phonological awareness. These models explore more complex, deeper relationships which hopefully more fully capture the reading process in the bilingual brain.