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Decorated UTSA graduate continuing bilingualism and math research at NYU

Decorated UTSA graduate continuing bilingualism and math research at NYU


MAY 13, 2021 — Combine studies in psychology, biology, and education, along with a lifelong interest in math, and you have the fusion for a very unique form of research.

Paola Montufar Soria, a psychology major and four-year Honors College student, graduates from UTSA this month, making a name for herself exploring how bilingualism and math connect.

“Math is often viewed as this kind of third space where language doesn't matter, but the more I've learned, the more I realize language is kind of a framework of understanding of and knowing,” Paola said. “The more that we know about language, the more we know how it can affect other different types of learning.”

“I think it’s one of UTSA’s strengths because of the opportunities it provides for students.”

A native of Mexico, Paola moved to San Antonio in 2013 during her freshman year of high school. Fluent in both English and Spanish, and always interested in math, Paola’s interest in psychology and education evolved and she wanted to develop a deeper understanding of how bilingual speakers process math.

“There's been a lot of research about how bilinguals are usually better in one language over the other, and we're trying to find the brain basis of that,” Paola said.

Her research team used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure memory recall on how bilinguals think through arithmetic—specifically multiplications. The participants heard two numbers, one at a time, and then saw a solution. They had to press a button to indicate if it was correct or incorrect. In this task, the team found brain response was equally fast and accurate across languages. This finding is significant because previous research stated bilinguals may be better with one language more than the other.

“This idea has dominated the education space, with people seeing bilingualism as a weakness,” Paola explained. “Our findings suggest that bilingualism does not hinder performance in a second language. Instead, this discovery reveals bilingual students must be supported by educators and educational systems to become fluent across their languages in order to be accurately and fairly assessed in their second language.”

Paola’s research findings have earned her prestigious peer recognition. She was invited to present her findings at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) annual conference in 2019, where she won a presentation award. Paola is in the process of sharing her findings in a research paper she’s writing in collaboration with Nicole Wicha, professor in the UTSA Department of Biology, along with her graduate mentor Vanessa Cerda

Paola thankful to UTSA and the Honors College for the support and multiple opportunities to pursue her research aspirations.

“I think it’s one of UTSA’s strengths because of the opportunities it provides for students,” Paola said. “I completed my Honors Thesis through them, and it really was due to their financial support that I was able to focus on classes and research.”

In addition, she’s a Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Scholar and part of the Institute of Education Sciences Pathways program, which includes faculty and students from across disciplines conducting Educational Science research.

Paola says UTSA’s professors instilled within her a sense of confidence and inspiration. In particular, she credits Wicha for being a valuable mentor.

“Dr. Wicha is a dedicated and caring teacher who really guided and encouraged me to grow as a researcher and scholar,” Paola said. “Another one of her strengths is creating a sense of community in her lab. It's very noticeable how everyone wants to help each other succeed.”

UTSA’s commitment to academic excellence, and as a Hispanic thriving university, connects with Paola’s entire family. Her youngest sister Marcela will enter as a freshman this fall, while her older sister Daniela is pursuing her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at UTSA. Her father Sergio is also enrolled as a doctoral student in electrical engineering. Paola says he was inspired to pursue his Ph.D. after attending one of her first research presentations.

“After my dad got a chance to see my presentation, he was impressed with what UTSA had to offer and decided he wanted to be part of this academic research environment.”

For her doctoral education, Paola is attending New York University beginning this fall, where she’ll advance her research on bilingual cognition examining the intersection of language and culture in the math learning experiences of Latinx children and families.  

“Something that really interests me aside from the psychological, neurobiological foundations of learning is applying this knowledge to educational materials, such as books, toys and other engaging activities for these children,” Paola said. “The reason why I want to do this is because my goal is to promote equitable education practices for children of all cultural and linguistic backgrounds.”

Bruce Forey

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University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

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