Makeba Wilbourn Honored by President Obama, Receives Presidential Early Career Award

Makeba Wilbourn with her daughter, Justice, at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Wilbourn studies children and the acquisition of knowledge.
Makeba Wilbourn with her daughter, Justice, at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Wilbourn studies children and the acquisition of knowledge.

Makeba Wilbourn, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, has received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research. She was one of 102 scientists and researchers to receive the award. President Obama made the announcement on Friday, according to a press release from

"I congratulate these outstanding scientists and engineers on their impactful work,” President Obama said. “These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that Federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”

Wilbourn studies how children learn language and how different modes of input, such as gestures, may influence early language and cognitive development. In addition, she is interested in how different cultural backgrounds and linguistic experiences influence children's language learning.

As a recipient of the NSF-CAREER award, Wilbourn's integrated program of research, education, and outreach will have three primary goals:

  • To determine how children’s exposure to and production of communicative gestures impacts early word learning and vocabulary development;
  • To identify how socio-cultural factors (e.g., race, socioeconomic status) influence the relationship between gesture and language in order to
  • Inform the broader community about how these factors contribute to the vocabulary development and educational outcomes of African-American children.

To accomplish these goals, observational and experimental studies will be conducted by leveraging resources at Duke University, North Carolina Central University, and through established community partnerships. Dr. Wilbourn believes that achieving these goals will advance our knowledge in the field by providing a comprehensive, developmental model of the relationship between gesture and language and a detailed and nuanced view on the role of race and socioeconomic status (SES) in African-American children’s vocabulary development and the Black-White vocabulary gap. This plan, she believes, has the potential to transform current understanding and educational practices by creating early and effective language learning interventions for all children and implementing culturally-sensitive teaching methods to improve academic vocabulary in African-American children.

For more information on Wilbourn and her work, please see her faculty profile and her lab web page