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The Eclectic Developmentalist

Through a wide range of studies, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn has led the way in showing how environments influence the well-being of young people

Through a wide range of studies, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn has led the way in showing how environments influence the well-being of young people  

IN A RECENT ISSUE OF MONITOR ON PSYCHOLOGY MAGAZINE, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn was reported to be “giddy with excitement.”

The cause: She and her colleagues are using techniques from a new branch of molecular biology called social genomics to look at gene expression in some 3,000 pairs of samples from mothers and children in the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study. The study, to which Brooks-Gunn contributes as a developmental psychologist, has followed children born to unmarried parents in 20 cities from birth to age 9. It also follows the mothers and fathers. The study has been gathering data on how child outcomes (health, behavior and achievement) are influenced by environmental factors, including parenting, economic and employment status, and neighborhood conditions.

Now, using social genomics, the researchers will be able to observe the interplay between environment and genetics by seeing how the genes of study participants—young children in particular—switch on and off in response to their surroundings.

“Genetics and environment really do go together, and it’s not one or the other,” says Brooks-Gunn, the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child and Parent Development at Teachers College. Perhaps more than any other developmental psychologist, Brooks-Gunn has documented the impact of poverty on human development. “And I just am loving these new [social genomics] techniques.”

Social genomics may be new, but Brooks-Gunn, who also co-directs the National Center for Children and Families, has spent her career exploring how biology and the environment combine to shape human identity. Her work has brought her numerous accolades, including the prestigious James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science and election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Brooks-Gunn confounds attempts to pigeonhole her in a single academic field or to simplify the connections among her wide-ranging research interests. She has conducted studies on postpartum depression, the impact of tidy households on learning, subsidized public housing, and the extent to which a new mother’s decision to work influences her child’s well-being. Still, all of her research ultimately focuses on the experience of women, children and the families around them, with an emphasis on the impact of disparities in wealth and other resources.

“I think that most scientists, regardless of what field they’re in, do what I do,” says Brooks-Gunn, who holds a joint professorial appointment in pediatrics at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. “Basically, when I learn something from an article or a colleague, I wonder how that fact fits into my existing framework on how to understand children’s development. Often, the result is that I change my framework and start new research projects.”

In 1983, for example, as part of their newly launched Adolescent Study Program, Brooks-Gunn and Michelle Warren, an endocrinology researcher at Columbia, studied teenage girls who were ballet dancers, swimmers and skaters. The study sought to shed light on how girls adapt to different social and environmental demands, particularly when their body type runs counter to a given set of expectations. It was the beginning of a focus on environmental influence that would ultimately come to define much of Brooks-Gunn’s career.

In “Unexpected Opportunities: Confessions of an Eclectic Developmentalist,” an essay in the 1996 book The Developmental Psychologist, Brooks-Gunn wrote that “girls in dance company schools were compared with girls in non-dance schools in order to examine the goodness of fit between the requirements of a particular social context and a person’s physical and behavioral characteristics.” For dancers, for whom “thin” is the archetype, being a late bloomer physically was better, while blooming earlier tended to lead to greater stress—the opposite of the experience among the regular population.

TODAY BROOKS-GUNN IS KNOWN FOR RUNNING MULTIDISciplinary, longitudinal, quantitative studies, such as Fragile Families, which other researchers will continue to mine for decades. Yet she started out using qualitative methods to address questions that grew directly out of personal concerns.

In the early 1970s, soon after earning a Ph.D. in human learning and development from the University of Pennsylvania, Brooks-Gunn conducted a small study of women’s differing experiences with menstruation and menarche (first menstruation). She chose the topic in part because of her own experience of dysmenorrhea (severe cramping), which repeatedly incapacitated her and resulted in numerous visits to the emergency room. Family and friends were largely unsympathetic, suggesting she was overwrought and needed to ignore her symptoms.

Subsequently, Brooks-Gunn and Diane Ruble, a psychologist then at Princeton, collaborated on a wider study of perceptions of menstruation and then of menarche. They found that girls’ views of menstruation were influenced by a range of factors including culture and religion and that their experiences of menarche were constructed as much from previously formed expectations as from direct experience of symptoms. Much of the literature on menarche at the time described the experience as painful, embarrassing and even traumatic.

“We reframed the crisis model into an examination of the meaning of menarche to girls and into a normative transition rather than on a normative crisis framework,” Brooks-Gunn writes in “Confessions of an Eclectic Developmentalist,” “After all, menarche was an indication of becoming an adult female, so was this necessarily negative? Did all girls resist growing up? Weren’t there self-enhancing aspects of becoming mature?”

Following that work, Brooks-Gunn persuaded Johnson & Johnson, which produced feminine products along with pamphlets and films used in health classes for girls, to fund a conference for researchers who study menarche. As a result of the conference, Brooks-Gunn coauthored the book Girls at Puberty and began exploring the psychological meanings of a range of events associated with puberty, an area that seemed largely “taboo outside of medical and health education circles.”

By the mid-1980s, Brooks-Gunn and her collaborators had established an understanding of the connection between menarche and a wide range of adolescent concerns, from girls’ ability to separate from their mothers to the role of family issues in adolescence. Among their insights was that adolescence is not just about changes in children but is also a reflection of simultaneous, profound changes in the family itself.

IF THE STUDY OF MENARCHE AND MENSTRUATION BROUGHT Brooks-Gunn into the realm of biological science, her work on pregnancy led her to focus on disparity.

In the early 1980s, Brooks-Gunn participated in a discussion at the Commonwealth Fund on inadequate and late prenatal care for poor women. As a result of that meeting, she ended up collaborating with Margaret Heagarty, a leading researcher on pediatric AIDs who was then based at Harlem Hospital, and Marie McCormick, an expert on maternal and child health at Harvard, on a study of the experience of pregnancy among poor black women in Harlem. Beyond learning about what pregnancy meant to the women in the study, Brooks-Gunn also came to understand what she describes in her “Confessions” essay as “the limits of applying techniques developed by middle-class professionals within communities with different value systems and experiences.”

Subsequently, Brooks-Gunn worked with University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg on studies of primarily black, lower- and working-class teenage mothers in Baltimore who had received treatment at a clinic run by Furstenberg’s parents, a social worker and an obstetrician. The collaboration began as the children of the teenage mothers were reaching adolescence and extended to three additional follow-up studies in which four generations of 300 families were seen over a 20-year period.

One of the most surprising findings of the Baltimore studies was that while the teen mothers, in large part, fared better than expected economically, outcomes for their children were quite negative Why? Brooks-Gunn’s and Furstenberg’s research found that the mothers’ struggle to avoid poverty “levied a cost” on their children. “The amount of time the teenage mother had available, the need for complex childcare arrangements, the absence of the father, lower educational attainment and, in some cases, reduced economic circumstance,” all took a toll on the children’s experiences, Brooks-Gunn wrote in “Unexpected Opportunities.”

All of this field work uniquely prepared Brooks-Gunn for her subsequent leadership of Fragile Families and three other large-scale trials: the Infant Health and Development Program, which focuses on the benefits of early treatment for low birth-weight babies; the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, a study of 7,000 families in 80 neighborhoods that documents various specific effects of low income on children, including juvenile delinquency, adult crime, substance abuse and violence; and Early Head Start Research and Evaluation. In some instances, she has not only helped shape the study design, but also taken the lead in convening researchers from many different fields.

For Brooks-Gunn, it’s all a logical outgrowth of her earliest, smallest-scale work.

“I’m still interested in social cognition underlying how people define themselves,” she says. “That was my self-recognition in puberty work. The puberty work led to a whole thing on reproductive changes. Then, I added work on sexuality, pregnancy and early parenting, all of the developmental progressions that we all go through. Those pieces got me interested in how biology and environment together influence development. And then came the intractable problems and disparities. Because when you get into the disparities, all the things I’ve done before make sense.”

Her journey continues. One day this past fall, in the second-floor office of the National Center for Families and Children in TC’s Thorndike Hall, Margo Gardner, a research scientist who works with Brooks-Gunn at the National Center for Children and Families, clicks open a new software program. It doesn’t look like much: several squares with tiny dots on them. But those squares and dots could be the beginnings of a means to forecast and analyze the evolution of a school and the development of students and teachers over time, based on just the kind of information that Brooks-Gunn has been collecting and mining for new insights throughout her career.

“I was very skeptical in the beginning that simulations could be useful,” Brooks-Gunn says. “But I was in Ann Arbor and we were doing a real simple one, and it was really cool. We were fainting over it. We’ll see how useful it is. Is it going to be a huge trend later?” Only time will tell, but judging from Brooks-Gunn’s track record, this is one software program that’s worth keeping an eye on.   

Published Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011


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