Rutgers psychology professor dies after battling cancer

The flag on the Old Queen’s building will be flown at half-mast on Oct. 21 and 22 in honor of Carolyn Rovee-Collier.

Rovee-Collier, who died on Oct. 2, was named one of the 10 most influential female graduates of the Brown University. She also received the Howard Crosby Warren Medal during her career —the most prestigious award in American psychology, according to the Federation of Associations in Behavioral Brain Sciences.

Rovee-Collier died after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. As her health declined, the former Rutgers psychology professor would type out articles one finger at a time, said John Ackroff, an instructor in the Department of Psychology. 

In addition to being a professor, Rovee-Collier was the director of the Rutgers Early Learning Project, or as the researchers called it, the “baby lab.”

Rovee-Collier, who earned her Ph.D. in experimental child psychology from Brown University, conducted research with her team, which delved into how the memory works and how infants learn. They produced work that overturned previously held ideas on the subject and influenced the entire field, said Lewis Lipsitt, her mentor from her days at Brown University.

Her contributions to the field of child psychology earned her and her team numerous accolades, including a James McKeen Cattell Fund Fellowship, the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development from the Society for Research in Child Development and a Medal for Distinguished Achievement from the graduate school at Brown University. 

Rovee-Collier began her studies at Louisiana State University, graduating in three years cum laude and with college honors. For two summers, she attended the Jackson Lab College Training Program in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she studied the cognitive abilities of newborn puppies. Christopher Rovee, her son, said this experience prepared her for work with infant memory.

She went on to study at Brown University, which was an all-male graduate institution at the time. 

The move to Brown meant overcoming the New England winters and working with colleagues who were not used to her southern accent, according to The Brown Daily Herald. 

It was during this time that Rovee-Collier began producing the work that changed many long-held beliefs in child psychology. According to the FABBS Foundation, she discovered mobile conjugate reinforcement, a procedure whereby an infant learns that the movement of a ribbon tied to its leg controls the movement of a mobile.

The idea that very young children can form memories from the world around them is “a truism now, but was groundbreaking at the time,” Lipsitt said.

It took four years for Rovee-Collier to find a publisher for her research, which overturned claims that infants could not learn until five or six months of age, according to The Brown Daily Herald.

After her time at Brown, she taught at Trenton State College for five years before coming to Rutgers, according to the Rutgers Early Learning Project website.

While serving as director of the Rutgers Early Learning Project, Rovee-Collier built a program that continued her research on childhood development. 

Rachel Barr, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University, said she and her students traveled thousands of miles up and down New Jersey to work with infants. 

Barr, who was also a research assistant in the baby lab from 1998 to 2001, said one of her first jobs was learning every road within a 50-mile radius of Rutgers before the GPS was invented.

Barr said despite the team’s work in research and publishing, they were more like a family than a group of scientists.

Rovee-Collier and her husband George Collier, also a professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers, would hold Friday afternoon “unwind” sessions for the graduate students at their farm. 

They also hosted summer and Christmas parties where current and former students and colleagues would get together for some of Rovee-Collier’s famous southern cooking, Ackroff said.

“She had an unbelievable gift for bringing people together,” Barr said.

Rovee-Collier was someone who current and former students and researchers all connected around, Barr said. 

She also set an example for female students to pave their own paths through the sometimes male-dominated world of science. Barr recalled practicing for hours before every presentation and dealing with “bizarre dress codes.” Rovee-Collier taught them to see challenges instead of barriers and trained them to be ambitious.

Through her battles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer, Rovee-Collier still continued to instruct and conduct research at the National Institutes of Health until last year. 

“She loved Rutgers, the students and cheering for the women’s basketball team,” Christopher Rovee said. “She didn’t seem like a spirit you could ever quench.”

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