Lab Members

Laboratory Director

Dr. Seth Pollak with toy monkey on shoulder

Seth Pollak, PhD

College of Letters and Science Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Professor of Anthropology, Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin at Madison

I hold doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology and in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and approach research on child development from both basic science and applied, public health perspectives. From the vantage point of basic science, my students and I explore the mechanisms of developmental change. Through our research, we address questions about the interpersonal, cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms that are responsible for the increasingly complex behaviors that children may acquire during infancy, early childhood, and into adolescence. My particular area of interest is in understanding how the quantity and quality of early experiences in children’s lives influences how children think about and process information. Members of our lab group hope to leverage an understanding of how developmental change occurs to develop effective prevention and intervention strategies for children most at risk for emotional, learning and behavior problems. Taken together, the goal of our research is to better understand the role that early experiences in children’s lives have on development of brain structure and function.



In November 2006 Dr. Pollak received an award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions to Psychology.  To read his biographical sketch, click here:  Biographical Sketch


Laboratory Members

Anna Bechner, Research Laboratory Manager
B.S. Ed., Marian College (Early Childhood Education)

My background includes teaching and research experience with families and young children in childcare, preschool, and the elementary school level. As a teacher I became very interested in understanding how children’s emotional experiences affect learning, behavior, and socio-emotional development. In my current role, I manage laboratory projects focused on examining early life stress and poverty, and the effects these emotional experiences have on child development, with the goal in mind of developing intervention strategies for at-risk children and families.


Photo of Cory BurghyCory Burghy, Research Scientist
BA Psychology (2001, UW-Madison)
MS Clinical Psychology (2008, University of Wyoming, Mentor: Eric Dearing)
PhD in Experimental Psychology (2010, University of Wyoming, Mentor: Narina Nunez)
Postdoctoral Fellow (2010-2014, UW-Madison; PIs: Davidson & Essex)

My research interests encompass the developmental trajectories of emotion understanding and regulation across childhood and adolescence as impacted by adversity (e.g., poverty, stress, maltreatment). In particular, I am interested in the biobehavioral correlates of early life stress and how children synthesize stress and unpredictability in the home into their own personal constructions of the world around them. My current research focuses on how poverty and housing stability in the first decade may be reflected in individual differences in affective experience, decision making, and academic success.


Pablo Cacerés

Pablo Caceres Maldondo, Graduate Student
B.A., 2014, University of Chile (Sociology)
M.P.P., 2016, University of Chile (Public Policy)

My research interests focus on the behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms through which acute psychosocial stress (i.e., social embarrassment or evaluation) and chronic psychosocial stress (i.e., poverty, neglect or maltreatment) impact self-regulation and learning skills in children and adolescents. By understanding such mechanisms, I hope to pinpoint factors that can promote positive coping and adaptation under adverse circumstances; and ultimately identify means to intervene at risk-populations for negative health and academic outcomes. Before coming to Madison, I completed an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy at the Universidad de Chile. Furthermore, I spent two years working as research assistant in a cognitive neuroscience lab in Chile. I am currently supported by a Fulbright Fellowship and a Scholarship from the Chilean Government.

Madeline Harms, Postdoctoral Fellow 
B.A., 2008, Wellesley College (Psychology)
Ph.D., 2015, University of Minnesota (Developmental Psychology)

In my research, I explore developmental changes in reward processing and the influences of social feedback and social experience on the ways in which children, adolescents, and adults respond to potential risks and rewards. Another line of my research examines developmental and individual differences in neural responses to emotional facial expressions. I utlilize behavioral and neuroimaging methods to explore these questions. I obtained my Ph.D. from the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, and prior to that spent two years working in an autism lab at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Brian Leitzke, Graduate Student, Clinical Psychology
B.S., 2007, University of Wisconsin – Madison (Elementary Education)
M.S., 2012, University of Wisconsin – Madison (Psychology)

My research focuses on the development of emotion processing and perception throughout childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. I am particularly interested in how early life experiences influence emotion processing later in life and what role these changes play in the development of psychopathology. Of key importance to my research is how individuals perceive emotional facial expressions and how they integrate contextual information into their perception of emotional scenes. Utilizing eye tracking and analyzing psychophysiological correlates, I hope to elucidate the role of emotion perception in the trajectory from early experience to adult emotional functioning, and identify means of intervention for those at-risk for negative health and life outcomes.

Photo of Alyssa Lovely

Alyssa Lovely, Community Outreach Coordinator; Research Specialist
B.A., 2015, UW Madison (Psychology)
B.S., 2017, UW Madison (Studio Art)

After graduating with my first bachelor’s in psychology, I spent several years working with youth of varying needs and abilities.  I quickly learned I wanted to continue working with youth, but I wanted to somehow incorporate my passion for art.  After earning a degree in Studio Art and working in the Culture and Cognition Lab at UW Madison, I  now find myself on the path to becoming an Art Therapist.  I am interested in how art can be used as a tool for improving our mental health through self expression, creative exploration, and mindful meditation, and how we can apply psychological research methods to bettering our understanding of the benefits of doing art.

Rista Plate, Graduate Student, Clinical Psychology
B.A., 2010, University of Wisconsin, Madison (Psychology)

As individuals act and interact in social environments, they must sort through complex evidence to make everyday decisions. Such choices might include whom to trust; how to make and maintain friendships; how to interact with a teacher versus a peer; when to mask versus express their feelings; or how to determine if a current behavior is likely to result in reward or punishment. I seek to understand how children make sense of social information, with a particular focus on how statistical learning unfolds in dynamic socio-emotional contexts. In doing so, I draw across areas of psychology, using cognitive methods to explore questions about social development.

Ashley Ruba, Postdoctoral Fellow
B.A., 2013, Duke University (Psychology)
Ph.D., 2019, University of Washington (Developmental Psychology)

I am interested in how emotion concepts develop throughout the lifespan, particularly in infancy and early childhood. My current research examines (a) what infants and young children understand about others’ emotions, and (b) how language-dependent and language-independent learning processes influence emotion concept development. Overall, my research aims to bridge gaps between affective science and developmental psychology.

Karen Smith

Karen Smith, Postdoctoral Fellow
B.A., 2011, Univeristy of Chicago (Psychology)
Ph.D., 2018, University of Chicago (Psychology)

I am interested in understanding individual differences in psychophysiological responses to stress, especially experiences of early life stress. Specifically, my research centers on elucidating the role of reciprocal interactions between physiological processes and affective states in children’s responses to stress, with a focus on how children’s perceptions of environmental demands shape their responses to stress. This work aims to identify protective factors that can aid in the development of targeted, effective interventions for at risk children and families, through enabling a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms contributing to individual differences in responses to stress.

Photo of Andrea Stein

Andrea Stein, Graduate Student
B.A., 2014, Yale University (Ethics, Politics & Economics)
M.A., 2015, Teachers College, Columbia University (Elementary Inclusive Education)

We all experience and encounter emotions in diverse, complicated ways. Sometimes we smile in happiness, while other times we might cry; in some contexts, a frown suggests anger, while in others it merely suggests concentration. Yet even in the face of this complexity, we somehow develop distinct understandings of a number of emotion concepts, which we use to construe our own and others’ emotions. My interests are in the social, cognitive, and linguistic mechanisms by which children learn such emotion concepts from a complex environment, as well as how representations of these concepts change across the lifespan.


Portrait of Kristina Woodard

Kristina Woodard, Graduate Student
B.A., 2013, University of Pennsylvania (Psychology)

I am interested in better understanding how children learn about components of emotion such as facial expressions, body posture, and nonverbal auditory cues. In particular, I’m interested in how statistical learning may aid children’s development in these areas, and how knowledge about these cues may change across development.


Yuyan Xu

Yuyan Xu, Graduate Student
B.A., 2015, Jinan University (Applied Linguistics)
M.A., 2017, Teachers College, Columbia University (Developmental Psychology)

After graduating from Jinan University in 2015 with a BA in Applied Linguistics, I altered my path to pursue a master’s degree in Developmental Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. I then worked as a research coordinator in Dr. Katie McLaughlin’s Stress and Development Lab testing a hippocampus-dependent associative learning model of PTSD in adolescents. There, I developed a research interest in how different dimensions of early life adversity might shape children’s environmental expectations and influence their associative learning, decision-making, and emotion processing, which in turn underlies various forms of psychopathology. I am eager to learn more about the behavioral and neuroimaging methods so as to explore these questions in graduate school.

Spring 2020 Undergraduate Students








Child Emotion Lab Alumni


Erin Eatough, PhD
Assistant Professor
Baruch College/The Graduate Center
City University of New York

Joseph L. Flanders, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
McGill University

Jamie L. Hanson, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
University of Pittsburgh

Lori M. Hilt, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
Lawrence University

Jessica Jenness, PhD
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Stress and Development Lab
University of Washington

Jennifer McDermott, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Susan Perlman, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Barb Roeber
M.S., 1988, St. Cloud State University (Child and Family Studies)
B.S., 1977, Michigan State University (Special Education)

Sarah E. Romens, PhD
Clinical Psychologist
The Psychology Center

Jessica Shackman, M.D., PhD
Emergency Medicine Physician
Howard County General Hospital

Katherine Shannon Bowen, PhD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist
Seattle Children’s Hospital

Elizabeth Shirtcliff, PhD
Associate Professor
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University

Nicole M. Strang, PhD
Research Scientist
Center for Addiction and Mental Health
University of Toronto

Alison B. Wismer Fries, PhD
Infant, Early Childhood, and Family Mental Health Consultant
Waupaca County Department of Health and Human Services