Remembering Carolyn Rovee-Collier


Carolyn Rovee-Collier; photo credit: Nick Romanenko

After decades of refusing to give in to multiple sclerosis, Carolyn Rovee-Collier lost her brave battle with breast cancer on October 2, 2014.

Carolyn’s empirical research reflected a paradigm shift within the field of infant memory development. When she began her research, the prevailing view of infants was relatively dim and uninformed by data. Infants were thought to learn little and remember even less. But Carolyn’s research, and the research of her students, has forever changed that view, showing that infants learn quickly, remember over long periods of time, and can retrieve and use their memories in a wide range of different circumstances.

Carolyn had excellent academic training. She earned a BA from Louisiana State University (1962) and a Master of Science (1964) and PhD (1966) in Experimental Child Psychology from Brown University, where she was mentored by Trygg Engen and Lewis P. Lipsitt. Her doctoral dissertation explored olfactory discrimination in the newborn infant, but while carrying out this work she was serendipitously distracted by an interesting aspect of her own infant’s behavior. This discovery provided the platform for the rest of her research career.

Carolyn accepted her first academic job at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey). She moved to Rutgers University in 1970 and quickly rose through the academic ranks. She was promoted to Professor in 1980 and Distinguished Professor in 1990. Over the course of her distinguished career, Carolyn received numerous honors and awards. She was elected to The Society of Experimental Psychologists in 1999 and received that society’s prestigious Howard Crosby Warren Medal in 2003. Carolyn received a James McKeen Cattell Fellowship, a Medal for Distinguished Achievement from the Brown University Graduate School, the biannual Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development from the Society for Research in Child Development, and the Senior Scientist Lifetime Contribution Award from the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology. Her oral history has been recorded and placed in the public archive of The Society for Research in Child Development’s Oral History Project.

Carolyn’s research on infant learning and memory received continuous Public Health Service grant funding for more than 35 years, including an NIMH MERIT Award and two successive NIMH Research Scientist Awards. She served for 18 years as Editor of Infant Behavior & Development in addition to serving as coeditor (with Lipsitt) of Advances in Infancy Research (Vols. 3–12), Secretary–Treasurer of the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and President of the International Society on Infant Studies, the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, and the Eastern Psychological Association. Over the course of her career, Carolyn published hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters, and she mentored dozens of PhD, master’s, and undergraduate research students.

Although these facts are impressive, they do not begin to capture the immense intellect and fierce tenacity that characterized Carolyn’s iconoclastic scientific career. Albert Einstein once said, “The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” Carolyn often walked alone — blazing a trail that many have yet to find. Like all pioneers, her work was often controversial and sometimes overlooked.

Her first publication (Rovee & Rovee, 1969) set the stage for the uphill scientific battle that would dominate her career. Her demonstration of operant conditioning by very young human infants flew in the face of traditional Piagetian theory. Despite her rigorous experimental methods, it took years to get that paper published. Her subsequent work on infant long-term memory (Rovee & Fagen, 1976; Rovee-Collier, Sullivan, Enright, Lucas, & Fagen, 1980) was similarly controversial because it was inconsistent with the view that infants remembered for only seconds or minutes at best. Her most recent theoretical work presents a direct challenge to current neural models of memory development (Rovee-Collier & Giles, 2010; Rovee-Collier, Hayne, & Colombo, 2001). Again, publication of these ideas was often difficult; only time will tell whether the research community embraces and tests them. Although Carolyn was sometimes bruised by the publication process, she was a firm believer that the data would speak for themselves; as long as you could get the data in print, people would eventually have to take notice.

Carolyn was also a firm believer in serendipity. Her hallmark task, the mobile conjugate reinforcement paradigm, was developed as a means to settle her own fussy infant. While trying to write her dissertation, Carolyn used a hair ribbon to connect her son’s ankle to his overhead mobile. She stood by her son’s crib and watched as he quickly learned to control both the rate and vigor of the mobile’s movements by altering his foot kicks. Other forms of serendipity continued to dominate her professional and personal life. Her offices at Rutgers and at home were always stacked with reprints. Despite no formal filing system, the paper she was looking for always managed to make its way to the top of the stack. In an attempt to avoid the New Jersey traffic, Carolyn often took the back roads home, discovering along the way new restaurants, antique shops, and stray cats that became part of the family.

Above all else, Carolyn was highly committed to training graduate students and other emerging researchers. She taught them everything that they needed to know to succeed in their careers — for example, that spelling counts, and that just because a reviewer (or an editor) says something doesn’t make it so. Most importantly, she taught them that some battles are definitely worth fighting. Like any great coach, Carolyn pushed people to their limits, but she never asked more from others than she was willing to do herself. She was always the first person in the lab in the morning and the last one to leave. Working with Carolyn was a cross between boot camp and a luxurious bed and breakfast: She might keep you up working for 2 to 3 nights in a row, but during that time, she generously provided ample amounts of home cooking and southern hospitality.

Carolyn was many things to many people.  She was a beloved wife to George Collier and a dedicated mother of two sons and three stepsons. For those of us who had the privilege of working with her, Carolyn Rovee-Collier was always our staunchest critic and our fiercest ally. Speaking on behalf of her students, her postdocs, her colleagues, and her friends, it is safe to say that we all drew an immeasurable degree of personal and professional strength knowing that Carolyn was in our corner. For all of us, that corner has suddenly become far too quiet.

Harlene Hayne
University of Otago, New Zealand

 Lewis P. Lipsitt
Brown University


Scott A. Adler

York University, Canada

One of Carolyn’s favorite enjoyments was watching the Rutgers women’s basketball team. During my years as Carolyn’s graduate student (1990–1995), she and I would regularly attend the games together. She would drive to the game (always an adventure to be in the car with Carolyn), and we would talk about my research, or science in general, or life events. It was our time to just connect. There was one moment at a game between Rutgers and Marquette when she recounted a bit of sage advice that has stayed with me ever since. She told me that in a sleigh pulled by dogs, if you are not the leader, the view never changes.

This approach led Carolyn to conduct groundbreaking research on infant learning and memory. She challenged scientific dogma in an unwavering and uncompromising way, overturning the long-held view (still held by some today) that memories formed in infancy last for only a few seconds — minutes at most. In well over a hundred papers, she established that infants are capable of forming long-term memories early in life. She worked on infantile amnesia, the early development of implicit and explicit memory, memory modification, and the interface between perception and memory in infancy.

Carolyn never missed an opportunity to impart the principles that guided her research: Think of the big picture, be interested in robust effects, and never go beyond your data. These principles became so ingrained that now my students have heard the same lines that I heard from Carolyn. The passing down of scientific principles from one research generation to the next is reminiscent of parents passing down life principles to their children. And that is how Carolyn treated her students, and how I have always viewed her — in her words, as our intellectual “mother hen.” Carolyn was the leader in memory development in infancy, and in training researchers, myself included, who continue to expand on the foundation she built. That is her legacy.


Rosemarie T. Truglio

Sesame Workshop

I was the first in my family to attend college. I was an ambitious student and had aspirations to attend graduate school in psychology, but I had no idea how to pursue this goal. I knew I needed an advisor and research opportunities to develop my knowledge and skills. I met with Carolyn to learn about her infant memory research. She gave me a chance, and I began my training in counting infant foot kicks. Carolyn then gave me the opportunity to pilot a new memory study with preschoolers for my honors thesis. Little did I know at the time that this study, which used a short Winnie the Pooh clip  to reward participants, would serve as the beginning of my career in studying the effects of media on children!

Whenever I was acknowledged for my career achievements,
I always called Carolyn to let her know and invited her to share in the recognition. I was proud to recognize her as my first mentor. She was the professor who gave me a chance to join her research team, took the time to get to know me as a person, and encouraged me to pursue a career in developmental psychology. Carolyn always downplayed her role in my achievements and said,
“I showed you the door, but you walked through it.” My response: “You shined a light on a door that I didn’t even know existed!”

Carolyn was unique in that she took the time to get to know all of her students (undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs). Yes, she had strong opinions and didn’t hold back from expressing them because she cared and wanted us to pursue career paths that were best suited for each of us. I am eternally grateful to Carolyn for shining a light on my career path. I will always strive to follow her example and guide students and staff on their career paths.


Eileen Kowler

Rutgers University

I joined the faculty at Rutgers in 1980, having been recruited by Carolyn and by her dear friend, the late Marilyn Shaw. Carolyn remained busy until her last month, constrained by the illness but still working, writing papers, fighting with manuscript reviewers, corresponding with friends, and keeping close with her family. Even when consumed by her fight to recover, the first thing she did on each of my visits was to recount her recollection of the status of my daughters’ adventures in school or with their jobs, and then ask for detailed updates — never failing to offer some words of approval or advice.

Carolyn was a vivid presence at Rutgers, speaking up and speaking out, regardless of how controversial her views or who might disagree. The annual Christmas dinners at her farm out near the Delaware River, cohosted by her husband and fellow Rutgers professor, George H. Collier, were legendary. She took on volumes of work, from editing Infant Behavior and Development for years to training teams of students who trekked all over New Jersey to infants’ homes because, Carolyn said, you get better data in the home than if you bring babies to the lab.

Carolyn never ducked a chance to talk because she was too busy. I was always greeted with her broad smile as she recounted the litany of projects that were keeping her up nights working. When I considered buying a house in 1986, I consulted Carolyn, tapping her years of accumulated wisdom from living on her farm in New Jersey. Carolyn, always decisive, visited my prospective house, took a look around, and announced that the property could not be passed up, and that if I wasn’t going to take it right away, she would contact the realtor and buy it herself. And that was that. I’m still in the house, and I will always miss my friend. œ


Alan I. Leshner

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Carolyn Rovee-Collier was a pioneering scientist who experienced some of the same pressures and skepticism that other transformative scientists have suffered over the years. Her work on infant learning and development helped greatly to show how wrong “common sense” or “common knowledge” could be and emphasized the need for rigorous research.  Her husband, George, had been my doctoral mentor, and in 1976, just a couple of weeks after our daughter was born, Carolyn and George came to visit us in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (I was teaching at Bucknell at that time). They bought a lovely mobile as a present. We thought, “That’s nice, we’ll put it over Sarah’s bed, and when she’s old enough she’ll appreciate it.”

Carolyn wanted to show us a newly recognized phenomenon: that relatively new-born babies could learn an operant (contrary to common wisdom).  She tied a strong around Sarah’s little leg and connected it to the mobile. We stood in wonder as the infant demonstrated the ability to learn to kick her leg to make the mobile move.

Over time, Carolyn and her work gained greater and greater recognition. Throughout, she maintained that same pioneering spirit and continued to work at the leading edge. She spread that spirit to her students, and all of psychology benefited greatly from her work.


I began my graduate studies at Rutgers in the Developmental Psychology program in 1972. Carolyn Rovee-Collier was one of my first professors. She scared me half to death–first by her demanding intellectual presence and second by her crazy driving as we careened through the back roads of New Jersey to the homes of infants who were to be hooked up to their mobiles. She had a huge influence on my understanding of both infant learning and our human need for control of our environment. I am saddened by her death and ever grateful for what I learned from her.

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Reading these tributes to Carolyn Rovee-Collier, it struck me as odd that no one mentioned what I consider to be her most important finding: the remarkable context-specificity of infant learning. The baby who learned to kick his foot in order to make the mobile jiggle will remember the trick, and kick his foot again the next time he sees the mobile, only if nothing has been changed. To quote from her 1993 paper in Current Directions, “[T]he original mobile is not an effective reminder if the context is different. At 3 months, for example, if everything is the same during testing as during original encoding but the room in which the reactivation treatment occurs is changed, then the memory will not be recovered.” Rovee-Collier’s work demonstrated that babies come into the world with a bias: They are more likely to err by not generalizing enough than by overgeneralizing. This insight played a crucial role in my own thinking on the role of learning in socialization and personality development (Harris, J. R., No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. Norton, 2006).

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