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Brown professor emeritus to share findings about infant development at Honors Forum

April 23, 2014

Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt, professor emeritus at Brown University, will present some of his findings about infant development at CCRI's 14th annual Honors Forum April 30.

For more than 50 years, developmental psychologist and renowned researcher Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt has worked to unlock the puzzling mysteries of the infant brain. Students, faculty, staff and members of the public are invited to learn about his findings – and his life – as he delivers the keynote speech at the college's 14th annual Honors Forum on April 30.

Though Lipsitt is now retired from his post at Brown University, where he served as the founding director of Brown's Child Study Center, he is by no means resting on his laurels. In fact, as professor emeritus, he continues with a research group to study the development of 4,000 Providence-area individuals whom he has been studying since their birth in 1959.

"It was an exciting time, and it was quite a challenge," he said of beginning the study from which volumes of literature on the subject of infant and child development eventually would be written.

Lipsitt said that part of the challenge was navigating the changing course of the field itself. He explained that when these studies first began, the notion of measuring an infant's development was based on a status model. This meant that there were standard tests, such as the Stanford-Binet or Cattell infant intelligence scales, that would measure certain functions in young children and present the results in comparison to what were considered standard milestones for different chronological points. But Lipsitt and his colleagues were part of the movement to turn from a status model to a process model, one that allowed for focusing on how an infant achieves a certain ability rather than simply whether an infant had that ability.

This shift was no small realignment, said Lipsitt, who noted that the implications of the new philosophy were crucial ones, particularly when it came to changing lives and providing the possibility of positive outcomes. "Once you understand the processes, you then know the mechanisms by which the changes occur, and once you know that, you are capable of intervening," he said.

The notion of intervention is a hot-button issue in our society today, particularly concerning autism spectrum disorder, which Lipsitt plans to briefly touch on in his talk. Lipsitt said recent statistics indicate that one out of 68 children born is diagnosed as being on the spectrum, with boys being more susceptible than girls.

"The most frustrating aspect of it is that while we can assess autism from 2 years of age onward, we don't know what's going on in the first few years of life that is creating a process for the development of autism. But the approach of looking at process is going to be the one that's eventually going to be the one that succeeds," he said.

Although researchers are still trying to sort out solutions in that space, the longitudinal studies that Lipsitt and his cohort have done on the legions of locals have yielded some concrete results along the way. The first such result that Lipsitt called to mind was the establishment of a link between maternal smoking and infant development, which spurred Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to take warnings about the link public, eventually resulting in labeling of tobacco products. Consumption of alcohol was another prominent link in the developmental chain, and Lipsitt said that for both of these issues, there were familial implications rather than just maternal ones.

But it was another outcome of the study that seemed closest to Lipsitt's heart, and one that he said he will discuss at the Honors Forum lecture. He said that after decades of studying crib death, or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), he has come up with a process-based hypothesis to explain the confounding phenomena whereby a child goes to sleep and never wakes up, leaving behind no trace of medical trauma.

Lipsitt said that he believes that infants who are unable to fight their way through respiratory occlusion are the ones who succumb to crib death. The fact that this occurs between 2 to 5 months of age is important, he said. "There has to be a process going on during that time period. The clue, in my opinion, is the shift from subcortical to cortical development within that period whereby the babies go from being reflexive creatures to being voluntary and learned persons who engage in behaviors that save their lives."

As groundbreaking and important as these issues are, Lipsitt has much more to share. He said that the lecture he's giving at the college will essentially be an autobiographical survey of sorts, one that covers the span of his career from inception to the present day. He said he hoped to inspire students who were interested in going into medicine, research or related fields, particularly where neuronal development and pediatrics were concerned. His own foray into what would come to be his lifelong passion came to him by chance: He simply came to Brown at a time when the university was looking for someone to start its Child Study Center, and he thought it was worth giving it a shot.

The poetry of this serendipitous occurrence is not lost on Lipsitt, who has spent his life studying people who were spun off into trajectories after taking what he called "the biggest chance we all take": being born. "It's a matter of fortuitous circumstances as to who your parents are going to be," he said, but added that the more we come to understand developmental processes, the more we as a society can potentially address some of the inequalities that inevitably result from life's mystifying lottery.

"I hope my student audience at the lecture goes away with the idea, regardless of what field they go into, that behavior science is a very important pursuit. In fact, behavioral misadventures kill or debilitate more children or youth than all other conditions behind. Suicide, homicide, the consequences of excessive drinking, smoking; it's all behavior."

In addition to Lipsitt's talk, between 50 to 60 honors students will present honors projects at the forum. Professor Lynne Andreozzi-Fontaine said that the event offered students a "nice opportunity for family and friends to see their projects," as well as, of course, the credit and academic distinction that a student can achieve for undertaking one of these independent and in-depth research projects.

The 14th annual Honors Forum will begin at 5:30 p.m. following the Liberal Arts Roundtable in Room 4090 at the Knight Campus in Warwick. The event is sponsored by the CCRI Honors Program and is free and open to the public.


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