Focus on Faculty: Prof. Melissa Clearfield

Associate Professor of Psychology The model, Tate Shaw, seven months, is the son of Assistant Professor of Psychology Brooke Vick and Matt Shaw.

Melissa Clearfield -  Associate Professor of Psychology

For this busy psychology professor, play time inovolves serious research. She promises, however, that she doesn’t sleep in a pod inside her office.

Your research explores whether socio-economic status (SES) impacts childhood development. How do you find infants to participate in your studies?

We run ads in newspapers, print fliers and work with Head Start to recruit low-income families.

What do the ads say?

Seeking Infant Scientists.

What effect does poverty have on childhood development?

It’s really bad. Children growing up in low SES homes have less object exploration, fewer problem-solving skills, less ability to shift attention from one task to another. Less focused attention. I’m trying to identify these delays with the intention of eventually helping by designing interventions to even the playing field for low-income children.

W.C. Fields said never work with children or animals. What are some of the challenges of working with infants?

They are a ton of fun to work with. It’s fun to try and get them to tell us what they’re thinking without them being able to talk.

How do babies who can only gurgle tell you what they’re thinking?

We need to be especially clever. We do this by asking infants to do things and then measure their behavior. We ask them to handle objects and try to solve little problems like grabbing a toy that is out of reach by using a tool. The hardest part is watching and analyzing frame after frame of video of the children. That can be tedious.

Show an infant a toy and the child will want that toy. But if you hide it behind your back they forget about it. What’s that all about?

It’s called object permanence. It’s especially bad at seven to nine months, but by 10 months, it usually goes away.

What’s the biggest misconception that Whitman students have about professors?

That we have no life outside our jobs and that we sleep in pods inside our office.

Your website says that psychology is cool. What is so cool about psychology?

It’s the study of humans. Of us. What could be more cool or interesting than understanding why we do what we do and how we get that way?

Edward Weinman