UConn Magazine: Out of the Minds of Babes

Cute kids, brilliant scientists, and exciting trips bring joy for Amanda Yagan ’21 (CLAS) at the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab.

Amanda Yagan standing by an MRI machine with a laptop showing brain scans

Amanda Yagan ’21 (CLAS) uses this portable Hyperfine MRI scanner, which has a slot only for a person's head, to take MRIs right outside of study participants' homes. For a Gates Foundation effort, Yagan has also traveled to India and Africa, training doctors to use these machines to increase access to MRI technology. (Peter Morenus / UConn Photo)

While running through an assessment with a young subject recently, Amanda Yagan ’21 (CLAS) asked, “What do we use to tell the time?” Without skipping a beat, the boy confidently answered, “Alexa!”

The fact that he had no clue why his answer invoking the smart speaker made his mom and Yagan laugh underscores exactly what Yagan studies: how environmental factors, such as exposure to electronics, shape young brains and bodies.

As a clinical research assistant in the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab at Rhode Island Hospital, Yagan interviews children, leading them through the Mullen assessment scales cognitive test and iPad games. She also administers MRI and other scans, all in an effort to better understand how brains grow and develop through infancy and childhood, and how factors such as genes, nutrition, exposure to electronics, and sleep shape this development.

“I love getting to work with kids,” says the speech, language, and hearing sciences major, who radiates such warmth and enthusiasm that it’s easy to imagine just how comfortable she makes these little ones.

“Often the children get really shy at the beginning … and at the end they independently give me hugs, or sometimes they’ll want me to carry them around the lab, and we just hang out and bond as we pick out books for them to take home. I love that we are able to pick up on each other’s energy and know that we are in a safe space.”

Other perks that make her gig so cool? Yagan enjoys regularly having her mind blown by the work of her brilliant colleagues, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–funded trips to India, Zambia, South Africa, and Uganda to train doctors there to use portable MRI scanners, like the one she’s pictured with here.

“I’m so excited to go to work” each day, she says. “I come home and I’m so happy.”

Read on for more.