A baby, a ribbon, a mobile and an idea changed our understanding of memory in infants

Carolyn Rovee-Collier

Carolyn Rovee-Collier, the Rutgers psychologist whose ground breaking work in learning and long term memory in infants led to a new understanding of the capacity of babies to learn, died Oct. 2 at her home in Delaware Township, New Jersey. The cause was breast cancer, her son, Christopher Rovee, said.

Rovee-Collier came to Rutgers as an assistant professor of psychology in 1970 and worked at the university until 2013. During her 43 years at Rutgers, she taught thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of graduate students, many of whom went on to distinguished academic and professional careers.

Rovee-Collier studied the memory and learning capacity of children under 2 years of age. Rochel Gelman, distinguished professor of psychology in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences, said Rovee-Collier’s work was “very, very significant.”

“What she did was develop a new way to study infants’ ability to remember things over different time periods, including the next day,” Gelman said. “And she did this at a time when people didn’t think babies remembered much of anything.”

Christopher Rovee, an assistant professor of English at Louisiana State University, said his mother’s breakthrough occured as she tried to balance the care of her infant son – his older brother, Benjamin – and her academic writing. Rovee-Collier noticed that Benjamin was happy when the mobile over his crib moved, and fussy when it didn’t. She tied one end of a ribbon around Benjamin’s ankle and the other around the mobile. By kicking, Benjamin could move the mobile, and this kept him happy while his mother wrote. After a while, she noticed that Benjamin would kick his leg even when the mobile wasn’t attached. She deduced that he remembered having set the mobile into motion. She later verified in her research the radical idea that pre-verbal infants could learn things and remember them – now a widely accepted idea taught in introductory psychology courses.

Rovee-Collier published hundreds of journal articles, co-authoring most of these with her graduate and undergraduate students. Rosemarie Truglio – the senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street – worked with Rovee-Collier as an undergraduate. She credits the accomplished psychologist with putting her on the right career track.

“My career plan was to be a clinical child psychologist, but Carolyn knew enough about me to know that wasn’t the right path,” Truglio said.

“She was a mentor who took the time to get to know her students and cared about each one of us,’’ Truglio said. “She provided wise and insightful advice that would guide us in the right direction to achieve our career goals and aspirations … I would not be where I am, or have done what I’ve done, if it weren’t for Carolyn.’’

Kimberly Boller, who completed her doctoral degree at Rutgers, said Rovee-Collier will be remembered for the depth of her mentorship and the effect she had on her students. “Carolyn’s commitment resulted in a cadre of leading researchers around the world who learned by example what it means to mentor students and colleagues,’’ said Boller, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research. “Carolyn taught me that it is my duty to help others interested in behavioral sciences find their way.’’

Rovee-Collier was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1942 and attended Louisiana State University, where her father, George Kent, was a professor of zoology. At LSU, she met David Thomas Rovee, a graduate student. They married and moved together to Providence, Rhode Island, when she was admitted to graduate school at Brown University. She received her Ph.D. from Brown and taught at The College of New Jersey, then Trenton State College, for four years, before coming to Rutgers.

Rovee-Collier and David Rovee had two children – Benjamin, born in 1965, and Christopher, born in 1969. They divorced in 1975. In 1977, Rovee-Collier married George Collier, also a professor of psychology at Rutgers and now retired, who survives her. Also surviving are stepsons George, Jon and James Collier, and grandsons Julian and Zachary Rovee.

For more information contact Ken Branson at kbranson@ucm.rutgers.edu, (office) 848-932-0580 or (cell) 908-797-2590.