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 NCS Scholar Spotlight: A Q&A with Melissa Menzer

Melissa Menzer

Photo credit: Carrie Holbo

As the largest child health study ever undertaken in the United States, the National Children’s Study (NCS) collects data which is invaluable to many different types of Federal researchers.  Seeing collaboration as the best way to advance the field of science, NCS researchers initiated the National Children’s Study Scholars Program; a program which enables Federal employees with subject matter expertise and experience in various fields to contribute to the NCS’ development. All Scholars work closely with NCS’ Program Office staff to further the goals of the Study while supporting the missions of the federal agencies they serve. To date, 35 scholars have participated in the program representing organizations ranging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Melissa Menzer is a program analyst in the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). She is an NCS Scholar.


What is your role at the National Endowment for the Arts?

I manage our Research: Art Works grant program, and am currently working on a systematic literature review on the arts and early child development. I also analyze data and work on reports from a variety of datasets which include arts-related variables, like the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. I have created survey questions for a variety of studies, such as the NCS and the Health and Retirement StudyExternal Web Site Policy, and I also provide research and evaluation expertise to support other NEA offices.

How long have you worked at the NEA? Tell us a little bit about your background.

I have been at the NEA since January 2013. Working here brings together my two main interests: psychological research and the arts. I have a Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of Maryland. In graduate school, I focused much of my research on the social and emotional development of children and adolescents. I also have formal undergraduate training in studio arts, also from the University of Maryland.

How did you hear about the NCS Scholars Program? When and why did you decide to participate?

I first heard about the program a couple years ago. Upon coming to the NEA, one of my first actions was to apply for the Scholars Program. And I am very happy that I got this opportunity especially considering that I am a developmental psychologist and a perfect fit for such a program!

Please describe the work you are doing/have done through the NCS Scholars program.

My main focus was to bring content expertise regarding how the arts, as an environmental exposure, may influence physiological/physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development. And part of my work in the Scholars Program was to develop a set of arts-related questions to be included in the NCS Vanguard Study.

What do you hope to accomplish through your work with the NCS Scholars Program?

There is a budding research field that focuses on studying both the arts and child development. The addition of the arts-related questions would allow researchers to further understand the relations between the arts and child development in a rigorously designed, longitudinal, and nationally representative study.  Beyond adding questions to the NCS Vanguard Study, the hope is that these questions would then be subsequently added to the Main Study. In addition, NCS staff and I have discussed the possibility of expanding on these questions at a particular age to allow researchers to dig deeper into the construct of arts participation. For example, we have discussed examining constructs such as motivation behind arts participation, making distinctions between formal and informal arts education, making distinctions between subtypes of art such as lullabies and pop music, and making distinctions between the social and nonsocial aspects of arts participation.

How will your work with the National Children’s Study help to further the NEA’s mission?

In the past few years, research has come to the forefront of our agency's priorities. One of our strategic goals is to promote public knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts as it relates to human development and societal functioning. The opportunity to work with the NCS would allow the NEA to meet its mission in further understanding the links between the arts and human development, more specifically how arts participation in early childhood is related to concurrent and future developmental outcomes.

Would you recommend the NCS Scholars program to others?

Yes, absolutely. I think it is a wonderful opportunity to be involved in a large-scale study that focuses on child development starting in infancy. The NCS is a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary study that draws together experts across a number of federal agencies, which makes this particular opportunity very unique and exciting. And as a developmental psychologist by training, I have an interest in further understanding how certain contextual and biological factors can have an impact on development.