ABCs to Ph.D.

Getting a Ph.D. wasn’t on this mom’s to-do list.

LaTreese Hall first homeschooled her two young children. In 2015, she expanded her role of educator into the community by creating the Tree House Academy —  a place where she could connect with families virtually and in-person to provide educational resou­­rces, consultations and tutoring services.

LaTreese Hall headshot

When the Chicago-native decided it was time for her kids to attend public school, she began researching the selective enrollment exam they would have to take. It was then she first heard of spatial cognition. Hall began researching this branch of psychology that explores how people think about physical space and how they communicate physical space such as giving directions.  She wanted to teach it to her children but the more she read about it, the more she wanted to learn. So she enrolled her kids in public school and started a new school search, but this time for herself.  

Hall applied to a few competitive Ph.D. programs. Shannon Pruden, FIU associate professor in developmental science and director of the FIU Project on Language and Spatial Development Lab invited her for an interview.

“The connection I had with Dr. Shannon Pruden was just unmatched,” Hall said. “I felt compelled to work with her. I felt she understood me and my research interest. She was the reason why I decided to come to FIU.”

While Hall fell in love with FIU and its faculty, Pruden saw something special in her. She nominated her for the FIU Inclusion Fellowship.

“From the first conversation I had with LaTreese, I could tell she had a great deal of promise and potential to be a superstar in the field of developmental science,” Pruden said. “Not only was she exceedingly intelligent, but she was passionate about developing and doing the research on children’s spatial and language development. LaTreese impressed me with her ability to generate important and novel research questions and she understands the importance of understanding and applying developmental theory to her research.”

Created by the University Graduate School to encourage promising undergraduate and master’s students who are underrepresented minorities or people with disabilities to pursue a Ph.D. degree at FIU, the fellowship provides students with a $24,000 stipend for the first two years and two additional years of funding by the graduate program through a teaching or research assistantship.

LaTreese Hall in front of presentation

Hall is using the funding to look for answers to the very thing that initially sparked her interest. Hall’s research focuses on individual differences in children’s spatial abilities – including mental translation and rotation skills – and particularly the role of parent-child spatial language and parent spatial ability, something that hasn’t been studied before.  She found parents’ mental rotational skills were a significant predictor of children’s spatial skills. Moving forward, she will look at whether parents who have better special skills have more spatial activities in the home and use more spatial language with their children.

Research shows spatial skills are a strong predictor of entering and succeeding in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. Hall points there are gender differences in spatial skills where males tend to outperform females.

“We are looking to see if spatial language is a significant component of that and in turn if there are interventions that can be created, evaluated and employed so that these disparities are decreased so everyone has an even playing field,” Hall said. 

Her favorite part is getting to work with children and seeing a little more about how their brains work and develop over time, something Hall had a hand in before pursuing a Ph.D.

While Hall put a pause on the Tree House Academy to pursue her Ph.D., she hopes to hire and train individuals to help get the academy get going again someday. The next time the academy is open, she plans on using its resources to develop children’s spatial skills while teaching parents how they can do the same. But ultimately, her eyes remain set on researching at a Research I university.