Expanding the psychological sciences at Cornell

Multidisciplinary engagement fromt he department of Human Development

On July 1, 2021, the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development merged with the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology to form a new psychology super-department. The new department retains the title “the Department of Psychology” and includes the faculty members from both departments. The evolution sets the stage to enhance collaboration in the psychological sciences and provide students with a rich education from a broad range of leading faculty.

Human Development infuses distinctive areas of scholarship and outreach into the new partnership. Over the past 96 years, its faculty members have helped shaped the concept that people are a product of biology and their environments, and established some of the best methods for translating research into real-world solutions.

“Human Development brings many strengths to the psychology super-department, including a deep commitment to publicly-engaged research and teaching, and cutting-edge work that addresses pressing social challenges by integrating perspectives from multiple disciplines,” said Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology and professor with appointments in the psychology super-department and policy analysis and management. “This is tremendous opportunity to employ the impact of outstanding faculty from two great colleges, expand our research, programs and collaborations, and ultimately elevate the psychological sciences at Cornell.”

Marianella Casasola, human development professor and senior associate dean for undergraduate affairs in the College of Human Ecology, served as co-chair of the implementation committee created to develop specific goals, strategies, and structures for the new super-department.

“Human development faculty members have a tremendous capacity to consider the context of their work in the psychological sciences,” she said. “We have always been a group focused on diversity and with a strong history of outreach. These are valuable attributes that we bring to the table in forming the new department.”

With dual appointments in the human development and psychology departments before the merger, Professor Felix J. Thoemmes will serve as the super-department’s inaugural chair. He said the new department will center around the existing strengths of each.

The traditional areas of expertise in the departments have been developmental psychology, perception and cognition, neuroscience, and social and personality psychology. Faculty members from the College of Human Ecology and the College of Arts and Sciences will continue to populate these areas.

“I am looking forward to helping our faculty members learn about each other’s work and find synergies that strengthen our research and teaching,” Thoemmes said. “I’m excited to see what happens as we work together.”

Leveraged for growth

The new super department includes 39 faculty members with a broad range of expertise in the psychological sciences, sociology, neuroscience, and more.

Faculty members are maintaining their current offices and laboratories and teaching the same or very similar classes in the upcoming school year. “Many classes are already cross-listed but combining the departments will provide our undergraduates with access to even more courses that fit their interests and directly contribute to the human development major,” Casasola said.

Initially, the new department will focus on team-building and developing collaborations that lead to new, ground-breaking research, Thoemmes said.

“From the start, every faculty member will continue the same research they were doing before,” he said. “As we build harmony and become a single, cohesive unit, I am confident we will ultimately build a stronger department.”

Human development: a proud history of distinction

A hallmark of the Department of Human Development over nearly a century (and through several name changes) has been faculty members’ commitment to what we now call translational research, explained Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“For as long as the department has existed, it has been devoted to creating a better marriage between science and service,” he said. “The department has been extremely hospitable to those with a scientific agenda who also want their work to lead to meaningful change in the world. That’s it’s legacy – linking the best science with practical solutions to human problems. And there is a strong commitment to continuing that focus in the new super-department.”

An emphasis on working with people across the U.S. and the globe has been a key aspect of Human Development’s outreach efforts, explained Ritch Savin-Williams, a former department chair, professor emeritus, and leading researcher in sexual development.

“The department always supported Cornell Cooperative Extension, but we had a larger mission as well,” he said. “We were conducting the highest quality of research, and we carried the message of helping people and families everywhere.”

Throughout the department’s history, this devotion has led to countless, far-reaching programs and policies. For instance, the research of leading developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner led to the foundation of Head Start, a comprehensive early childhood education program that has been serving low-income children and families across the U.S since 1965. Ground-breaking work by Professor Stephen Ceci led to best practices for how law enforcement officials interact with children. A home visitation program for pregnant and new mothers developed by human development researchers now serves approximately 58,000 families a year in the U.S. and is proven to improve health outcomes for mothers and babies, prevent child abuse and lead to better academic outcomes for kids.

In addition to its broad outreach efforts, human development scholars have created a productive environment for both research and teaching by embracing diversity, said Qi Wang, the most recent department chair and an expert on memory and culture.

“Approximately one quarter of our faculty members are from underrepresented backgrounds, but more important than that, we have fostered an environment where we accept everyone,” she said. “People feel very comfortable here because we appreciate each other’s values and respect each other’s differences.”

Another key area of focus among the human development group has been a substantial emphasis on the education of undergraduate and graduate students, a tradition that spans the history of the department, and, in particular, experiences outside of the classroom, Wang said. She points to the large numbers of undergraduate students – about 80 percent – who participate in faculty research projects as one example of this commitment.

“As a result, they have incredible opportunities when they leave Cornell – for jobs or graduate school,” she said. “We are very proud of our students, and of the faculty members who put a strong emphasis on connecting our students to research and outreach,” Wang said.

Evolving with the times

The Department of Human Development was founded in the midst of a national movement in the early 1920s to fund research in the best practices for raising children. As part of this movement, the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial, a charitable trust established by John D. Rockefeller in memory of his wife, donated the seed money to Cornell to create the department, which was housed in New York State College of Home Economics, which eventually became the College of Human Ecology. When it was founded in 1925, it was called the Department for Family Life and its main focus was on young children.

“That expanded over the years to include development over the entire life span,” Wang said. “In reflection of that, we have faculty who study infants and early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, midlife, aging, and also the relationships between these ages.”

From the start, the department provided a unique environment where scholars could conduct research into the best practices of raising and educating young children.

The Department of Family Life attracted scholars from across the country focused on scientific training and research in psychology, education, medicine, and nutrition. Because the field of child development was more likely to accept female scholars, the majority of founding faculty members were women, many with advanced degrees from some of the top universities in the U.S. at the time.

These faculty members established the department’s reputation for research excellence. They regularly published in top scholarly journals and mainstream publications, including the popular Parents’ magazine. In the early years, the department also printed an extension bulletin called Working Principles of Child Guidance, which was distributed to households across New York State. In addition to educating families about the best child-rearing practices, faculty members helped to train the next generation of educators, health care providers, and social workers.

One early faculty member, Kurt Lewin, was a Jewish refugee who left Germany under the Nazi regime. He is credited with developing “field theory,” the idea that human behavior is a result of each individual’s personality and their environment. This theory, in part, set the stage for future ground-breaking work in the department.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the department changed its name to the Department of Child Development and Family Relationships, began attracting more state and federal research funds, and expanded its research.

In 1948, Bronfenbrenner joined the department as an assistant professor. His work over the course of 57 years helped to define the department and his field internationally. He was widely regarded as one of the world’s leading scholars in developmental psychology and is credited with creating an interdisciplinary concept that described how psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics work in union to affect people over the course of their lives. The idea is that people develop in relation to their family, school, community, and society, and it transformed how social scientists approach the study of people and their environments. He also conducted cross-cultural research in the Soviet Union.

Bronfenbrenner was known as a consummate planner, perpetually interested in his student’s work, said Professor Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Development and Design + Environmental Analysis, who co-taught a large lecture with Bronfenbrenner for several years. Bronfenbrenner would script out each week’s lecture and even carefully plan seminar courses that centered around student discussion.

“To this day, that was one of the intellectual highlights of my life,” said Evans, whose research has helped determine how environments, specifically those of poverty, create cumulative risk factors that impact child development. “Some of Urie’s brilliance was just pure intellectual horsepower. He really believed that teaching and research were integral to one another, and he fully committed to teaching.”

Bronfenbrenner prioritized teaching above much else, Evans said. Case in point, he once famously delayed a phone call with U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale to finish a conversation with a graduate student about the student’s own research.

In the 1960s, the College and the department evolved to reflect broader social changes taking place across the nation. On the whole, the College shifted its focus toward science and further from the practical applications of home economics. In 1969, its name followed suit; Cornell changed the college’s name to Human Ecology to capture its focus on improving human lives through research. Shortly after, the department’s name changed from Child Development and Family Relationships to the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. (It dropped “family studies” from its name in the late 1990s.)

During these years, the department broadened its focus to the entire lifespan, hired more male faculty members, and recruited more male students. It consistently maintained a balance of research, teaching and outreach programs.

Throughout the decades, the Department of Human Development experienced tremendous technological change. Beginning in the 1990s, most faculty members were assigned a dedicated laboratory space where they could collaborate with colleagues and students and run experiments. In more recent decades, the department invested in new technology that would allow faculty members to conduct world-class, cutting edge research.

The pinnacle of this investment was a movement to install a 3 tesla magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine on the Ithaca campus. The campus-wide resource is located in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall and funded by the National Institutes of Health and the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Human Ecology and Veterinary Medicine.

“The MRI facility allowed us to branch out,” said Professor Emeritus Ritch Savin-Williams, who was the Human Development department chair when the scanner was installed. “We began hiring faculty members that specialized in neuroscience and specifically wanted to use this facility, so it really helped to expand the department’s focus.”

Looking ahead to new breakthroughs

As human development transforms into the Psychology super-department, it continues its history of bringing pioneering discovery and critical perspectives from multiple disciplines to the teaching, research and outreach mission of the University.

For example, neuroscientists Adam Anderson and Eve De Rosa are spearheading an effort to develop a non-invasive measurement tool – tracking a person’s heart rate and its variability over time and during cognitive activities – that could provide an early warning sign for dementia.

In addition, clinical psychologist Jane Mendle is exploring the different ways that girls in puberty cope with physical and emotional challenges, and how that affects their risk of developing mental health problems. Casasola is expanding our understanding of how children develop language and spatial skills using unique technologies, such as virtual reality glasses.

A new outreach program headed by Assistant Professor Marlen Gonzalez aims to democratize neuroscience by building connections between Cornell researchers and surrounding communities. The Community Neuroscience Initiative has hosted a series of “Get to Know Your Brain Days” in schools and is working with recipients of SNAP, the federal program that replaced food stamps, to understand the intersection between food security, social context and neuroscience.

The department has also recently focused on hiring faculty members whose works helps to promote social justice; this brings another area of innovation to the merger. One of the newest of these hires is Misha Inniss-Thompson, a post-doctoral associate using positive youth development models to better understand the impact of ethnic-racial socialization in shaping Black girls’ socioemotional wellbeing and academic outcomes.

“I feel a real sense of hope and inspired by how this new beginning will lead to exciting developments,” Thoemmes said. “Having a department with faculty from varying backgrounds is an embodiment of the principle of cross-disciplinary collaboration and a hallmark of what science will be in the future.”

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