Campus & Community

Seven win first Kagan Research Awards

6 min read
Henry Rosovsky and Jerome
Celebrating the first Jerome Kagan Undergraduate Research Awards are Henry Rosovsky (left), Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor Emeritus, and Jerome Kagan, Daniel and Amy Starch Research Professor of Psychology Emeritus, for whom the awards are named. (Photo by Howard Kelley)

As a 10-year-old child visiting a historical society in Cabot, Vt., Sarah Anne Carter was fascinated by two small dolls dressed in plain black, lying in wooden coffins. Carter has wondered ever since about who played with those dolls and why. Now a history concentrator in the Harvard College Class of 2002, she is answering these questions from long ago in her senior thesis, “Playing Funeral: Mourning, Ritual, and Childhood, 1800-1990.”

Carter is one of seven winners of the first Jerome Kagan Undergraduate Research Awards, sponsored by the Harvard interfaculty initiatives on Children and on Mind/Brain/Behavior, and named for Jerome Kagan, Daniel and Amy Starch Research Professor of Psychology Emeritus. The awards honor Kagan for his indispensable work in developmental psychology, his deep commitment to undergraduate education, and his leadership in the two interfaculty initiatives.

Mentored by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History, Carter will use her Kagan award to explore how children played “mourning” with dolls and coffins given to them by their parents as a way of learning about death. She will visit the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, which holds the foremost collection of American children’s literature in the world, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, dedicated to 19th and early 20th century toys, the doll collection at the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y., and the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas.

Hilary L. Levey ’02, a sociology concentrator, will develop her senior thesis, “The Culture and History of Child Beauty Pageants: Who, How, and Why Mothers and Daughters Participate.” Using qualitative and quantitative methods as she interviews mothers and daughters at pageants this summer, Levey will explore the gender, racial, and socioeconomic implications of this contemporary phenomenon. Professor of Sociology Peter V. Marsden is her mentor.

Visual and environmental studies concentrator Roberto F. Velez ’02 will also examine how death affects children in his video project, “An Investigation of Children Orphaned by AIDS in Tanzania.” Traveling with the Task Force on Children and Democracy, a group of Harvard Medical School students, Velez hopes to create documentary portraits of orphans in the northern Tanzanian city of Moshi. Alfred F. Guzzetti, Osgood Hooker Professor of Visual Arts, agreed to mentor Velez after seeing his first video, an extended study of a family in a New York City housing project.

Emily S. Bolton ’02 will research and write “Aging Out of Foster Care,” a study of what happens to children in state residential care when they turn 18 and are required to support themselves. Bolton will volunteer this summer at Bridge over Troubled Waters, a social service organization for troubled Boston adolescents, and will shadow Department of Social Services caseworkers for youth transitioning from foster care. Julie Boatright Wilson, Harry Kahn Lecturer in Social Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, serves as Bolton’s thesis adviser.

In her senior honors thesis for the Mind/Brain/Behavior (MBB) track in cognitive neuroscience, Jennifer H. Hepps ’02 will explore why traumatized children are behaviorally reactive, what effect the stress response has on this reactivity, and how these physiologically induced changes develop into permanent behaviors. According to her mentor, Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn, Hepps’ study of the long-term physiological effects of childhood trauma on adult psychology and neuroendocrinology has potential clinical relevance.

Conor M. Liston ’02 and Elizabeth H. Dibble ’02 are also writing senior honors theses in the MBB cognitive neuroscience track. Both are interested in infant brain development. Overseen by Kagan, Liston will assess the capacity of infants for long-term recall of events that occur in the first two years of life and will analyze the extent to which self-recognition skills and verbal ability predict subsequent nonverbal and verbal recall of those events. Working with Elizabeth S. Spelke, who will join the Harvard psychology department from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September, Dibble plans to examine navigation and spatial memory in 12- to 16-month-old infants.

According to Judith S. Palfrey, faculty director of the Harvard Children’s Initiative and T. Berry Brazelton Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, 33 applications were received from students representing 13 different concentrations. “Our selection committee was thrilled with the response,” said Palfrey. “We are very pleased that so many undergraduates are pursing so much diverse research related to children and children’s issues, and we hope to respond to this broad interest with new courses and activities for students of the College.”

During the award ceremony, colleagues paid tribute to Kagan’s distinguished career as a teacher and researcher of developmental psychology. Barry E. Kosofsky, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, said, “Jerry’s power to communicate complicated ideas that are compelling and appreciated is unsurpassed. Few scientists have his skill in taking their insight, their wisdom, and their brilliance to the general public.” Kurt W. Fischer, Charles Bigelow Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, noted, “Jerry has an unbelievable enthusiasm about the importance of studying babies and children and connecting what we study to what goes on in children’s real lives.”

Martha L. Minow, professor of law at Harvard Law School, told the awardees, “To be associated with this award is to be associated with a remarkable balance of skepticism and hope, utter seriousness and fabulous humor, absolute rigor and willful playfulness. To be associated with this award is to be associated with the best notion of experimentalism – experimentalism that is governed in part by science, in part by imagination, in part by a drive to make the world better.”

Kagan also had a message for the students: “To the undergraduates who have won these awards, I wish each of you joy, excitement, and the occasional feeling of agape that are the gifts of discovery, to unfettered inquiry that serves primarily curiosity. Students are like gentle hands that enter a faculty office, a faculty laboratory, quietly, out of nowhere building a window, permitting a little more light so that one sees beautiful things.” Kagan also announced that he and his wife plan to sustain these awards in perpetuity.

The Jerome Kagan Undergraduate Research Awards will be offered again next spring. All Harvard College students with sophomore or junior standing in spring 2002 are eligible to apply; proposed research must relate to children or to issues that affect children. To learn more about the awards, please visit