July 2001

Shaping Science Policy — International, National and Regional

Symposium on Women in Science

Discovering How Taxol Works

The Mind of a Child

Changing Course to a Career in Medicine

Working at the Nexus of Law and Science

New Factors in the Chemistry Equation

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© 2003

 

Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

The Mind of a Child
By Lisa R. Bechler

Kimberly Cassidy

If you’ve ever shaken your head in wonder at the way a child thinks, you’re not alone. At one time or another, most parents will question their children’s sometimes bewildering behavior. What’s gotten into him? How did she know that? When did he learn to do that? Kimberly Cassidy, assistant professor of psychology on the Rosalyn R. Schwartz Lectureship at Bryn Mawr College, is pursuing answers to those questions.

A Passion for Research

Cassidy joined Bryn Mawr as a lecturer in 1993, after earning her B.A. in psychology from Swarthmore College in 1985, an M.S. in biology from Long Island University in 1989, and her M.A. (1990) and Ph.D. (1993) in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. While attending Long Island University, she taught elementary school, but she ultimately decided to pursue her passion for research. "There’s something aesthetically pleasing about the transformation from question to answer through the scientific process," she explains. "I find it intellectually elegant."

In 1998, Cassidy applied for and won a tenure-track position at Bryn Mawr. "Kim had done some very interesting research, and we felt she’d be very compatible with our Clinical Developmental and School Psychology Program," says Leslie Rescorla, psychology department chair and professor, who also directs the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr. The department has seven tenure-track faculty members, who represent the areas of developmental, clinical, cognitive, biological and social psychology. Cassidy teaches both undergraduate- and graduate-level courses, and she offers ongoing research opportunities for her students. "By having a research program that students find interesting, I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of undergrads involved in science," she notes. "They take that into the community, where they become proponents of science themselves."

A developmental psychologist with a focus on cognition and education, Cassidy maintains a keen interest in research with children. Bryn Mawr has easily accommodated her vocation. In addition to offering strong undergraduate and graduate programs, the College is home to the Phebe Anna Thorne School, which is directed by Marilyn M. Henkelman ’71. The nursery school doubles as a real-world "lab" for student and faculty research while providing an important service for the public. Cassidy encourages her students to serve as teaching assistants at the school, giving them further opportunities for observation and research.

Theory of Mind

Cassidy’s main research emphasis is on theory of mind, or the development of children’s theories about the minds of others. In other words, Cassidy studies the way a child learns to understand how a person’s behavior relates to her or his thoughts. In children, the ability to reconcile and even influence another child’s behavior is premised on such understanding.

Investigating theory of mind involves studying the age at which kids acquire it, its relationship to language development, sources of theory of mind information (e.g., children’s books), and the relationship between a child’s level of theory of mind and her or his level of social behavior. "We believe theory of mind is important because it is core to getting along with others socially," explains Cassidy. "Autistic children, who consistently have great difficulties in this area, have profound social impairment. This is one piece of evidence that theory of mind matters."

In another area of research, Cassidy looks at what children learn from the sound of language itself. For example, she studies the phonological differences between female and male names, and believes these differences may affect everything from female/male stereotypes to children’s product marketing. To explore this theory, Cassidy conducted a study in which she gave identical tea sets to both boys and girls. One tea set was made by a company with a female-sounding name while the other was made by a company with a male-sounding name. "The kids preferred the tea set with the name that more closely matched their own gender," recalls Cassidy. "We’re looking at these connections, and how they impact kids in the real world."

Committed to Kids

In addition to being admired for her teaching and research, Cassidy is highly regarded for her extraordinary publication record. She has authored 14 articles, several of which were co-authored with Bryn Mawr students, for journals such as Developmental Psychology, Cognition, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,  and Psychological Bulletin and Review. "It’s important to be a contributor to the field. For me, the work I do has practical applications for kids, so it can really make a difference." Cassidy’s research has been supported by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

Cassidy is also well-respected among her faculty peers. "Kim is a wonderful teacher. She’s committed to helping her students and is a terrific colleague," says Rescorla. "She simply never lets you down."

When it comes to her family, Cassidy works hard not to let anyone down either. She is married to an environmental lawyer and has two boys, ages 18 months and 5 1/2 years. From the family pictures that cover her office and the excitement in her voice when she talks of her work with children, it’s easy to see that Cassidy is in the right field. "I like that my research is with kids," she says. "You never know what they’re going to say or do. It’s completely captivating."

About the Author

Lisa Bechler is a communications consultant for clients in the high technology, health care, pharmaceutical, financial services and higher education sectors.

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