By: Nick Santangelo

Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology Nora Newcombe was surprised and excited when she heard the news last month: she was being awarded the 2019 Howard Crosby Warren Medal. Awarded annually since 1936, the medal’s list of winners is a who’s who of major figures in experimental psychology, including some Nobel Prize winners.

“I really was very, very excited, because this award is given by a small elected society of people who are eminent experimental psychologists,” says Dr. Newcombe. “And the list of the people who have won it in the past is really very impressive.”

The professor, who’s set to appear on CBS later this year to discuss how humans understand and recall navigational directions, noted that her Howard Crosby Warren Medal nomination “came out of nowhere.” Technically, the nomination and subsequent award came out of recognition for Dr. Newcombe’s experimental psychology work from the past five years. However, she’s not totally convinced they didn’t take some of her work from prior to 2014 into consideration as well.

“If you look at the full citation, they actually talk about my whole career,” explains Dr. Newcombe. “So that's why I wouldn't emphasize the five years. And they talk about my work on spatial cognition and the fact that it's malleable. They also talk about my work on the development of memory. And a lot of the work is on underlying brain maturation, which I very much studied using behavioral tasks. It's only recently that I've begun collaborations looking at the brain more directly.

“So, overall I think what they're looking at is uniting various insights and theories and methodologies from developmental and from cognitive psychology, from neuroscience and from education.”

The professor remembers first being pulled toward a career studying and teaching about the brain when learning about philosophy as an undergraduate student and realizing that while the field’s classical thinkers offered compelling arguments, there was a need for more quantitative studies. Additionally, she came to understand that very little was known about mental health problems at the time. She believed that conducting research into how the human mind works and develops would lead the way to better understanding.

“So in college I began moving away from clinical psychology and being inspired by those philosophical issues,” recalls Dr. Newcombe, “which converged on studying cognitive psychology and cognitive development.

“And then after having done that for a while, I came to realize there's another translational application, which is to education, because basically preschool teachers, k-12 teachers and college professors are in the business of changing the human mind and brain and moving along cognitive development. Knowing about how it's proceeding in various environments is relevant to how to do that more effectively.”

In considering how her experimental psychology work has been supported over the years, Dr. Newcombe credits the Psychology Department as being a “very collaborative” research environment and the College of Liberal Arts for helping the department develop as such.

And for any of her colleagues who hope to follow in her footsteps and one day win their own Howard Crosby Warren Medal, Dr. Newcombe stressed the importance of doing programmatic research and having one step follow another. But while being focused is important, Dr. Newcombe also recommends avoiding tunnel vision by reading widely and drawing from a variety of fields.

The College of Liberal Arts congratulates Dr. Newcombe on winning this prestigious award for her highly significant research contributions to experimental psychology!

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