Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics
Girl Geeks/My Story
Gelman, Rochel
Rochel's Profile
Rochel's Story
Gelman, Rochel
Professor II; Co-Director of Cognitive Science

Phone: 732-445-6154

Ph.D., University of California, 1967

Professional Summary/CV [.PDF]

Department of Psychology, School of Arts and Sciences, New Brunswick; Rutgers

Areas of Interest: Developmental cognitive science, theory of concepts, domain-relevant concept learning and conceptual change, causal principles, verbal and non-verbal representations and re-representations of arithmetic, representational tools; math and science literacy.
In retrospect, the first thing that put me on this career path was the fact that I chose to do the math, physics and chemistry track when I was in High School (in Toronto, Canada). I made this choice because the fields came easily to me. My female friends tended to do the biology and history track (this was when the material still required more memorizing than thinking or experimenting). Importantly, I had a male guidance counselor who agreed with my choices.

There were two important events. The first came at the beginning of my second year at the University of Toronto. In my first year I took the Honors program and did exceedingly well. There were two tracks to the BA, General 3 year and the Honours 4 year (High School took five years with the 5th covering many courses like the first year in US schools). I assumed that I would do the first given that all my friends were. When I saw the Dean, he would not hear of this and told me I had to do honours. He asked me to talk about the courses I took and then simply pronounced me an Honours Psych student.

I continued to get First Class Honours (save for one year). And I did research in three labs, was an author on 2 papers, gave a talk at the Canadian Psych Associate, and attended lab meetings. Everyone made it clear that I had to go to graduate school. Being a Jewish girl in Toronto, the assumption is that I would do this at the University of Toronto. The next event, again in retrospect, put me in the path to where I am now. Had I stayed in Toronto, it is more likely that I would have ended up as a leader of Hadassah. I had done some serious fund-raising in High School. The Undergrad Chair in Psych asked the Jewish women who were getting First Class Honours to meet with him. He had come to appreciate how insular the very large Jewish community was (and still is) in Toronto. He also knew that 2 of the 3 of us were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Anyhow, he told us to go home and tell our parents that our teachers said we had to go away to graduate school. I did and my father then asked: and who do you expect to pay for this? (in a way that indicated he was in no rush to do so). I said that I expected to win a fellowship.

The choice of graduate school was whimsical. If I were leaving home, I wanted to live in NYC or California. When I told the professor where I had applied, he held his head and then told me that UCLA was clearly the best of the lot. So, I went there. At UCLA I did exams in both developmental and human learning. I had studied and researched animal learning at Toronto. The fact that I did both fields turned out to be the reason that I am where I am today.

I acquired the background that could have taken me into concert management. I took piano lessons starting when I was five until I graduated from the University of Toronto. My first teacher took me to her teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music, who was known as one the best in Canada. He not only taught me piano, he put me on a path that would lead me to through all the grades at the Conservatory and finally, my passing the piano teacher exams and Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto. The required academic courses included ones in harmony, counterpoint, history and pedagogy. When I went to UCLA to do my PhD, I found myself on a great performing arts campus and, somewhat unexpectedly, selected to serve as a graduate student on the Student Cultural Commission. It was here that I learned a great deal about concert managing and even could have ended up as an intern. Fortunately, my years in the PhD program took more and more of my heart.

Being that I ended up in LA during the 60’s, I experienced some cultural shock, at first! By the time I left I knew how lucky I was to live in LA during the most optimistic decade of my life. It also was a time that the arts were exploding in LA. And, I discovered the meaning of diversity in religion and cultural background.

The most influential people in Toronto were my piano teacher and my teachers in the Honours Psychology program. They simply assumed that we would become scientists, male and female alike. And an incredible number of students in the program did.All but two undergraduate faculty member were male and none ever suggested that I pursue ‘female’ topics – whatever these are.

Then, at UCLA, I ended up with a number of faculty spending serious research planning time with me, especially Tom Trabasso and Wendell Jeffrey (my Co-Dissertation) advisors. I also was encouraged to develop my own line of research and provided some funds for this. In essence, I was treated like an independent scientist to be, a model that I have used in training my own graduate students. I am extremely proud of my training record. A very large percentage of my former students are in top research universities where they hold chairs. Especially wonderful is how many are women.

The greatest challenge to me so far has been overcoming my families assumptions regarding the life that I was intended to live in Toronto. This did not include a career in science at a major research university in the United States. My parents came from very religious Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. My father was brilliant but orphaned at 12. As such his education was stopped. Both parents left as teenagers who had rejected religion and embraced socialism, all the while staying deeply committed to Jewishness and the belief that they had to live amongst their own. They met in Toronto in a club with members who shared these values and the group became an extended family. They all were deeply committed to the assumption that all of the children would get good educations. And some of the adults were intellectuals.It was not that easy to think outside the cultural box and this took time

My husband, C.R. Gallistel, who I met when I joined the Penn Psych Dept faculty, was an important sounding board in the early years of my career. I was going through a personal conceptual change about early learning and development – moving from a committed empiricist to a modern day nativist. This was happening in response to data I was collecting on the abstract abilities of very young children. I should add that other faculty at Penn had started to move through the same intellectual boundary. I was never one of those who assumed that prizes and major honorifics would come my way. The flood of these, culminating with my election to the NAS, was not on my expected agenda. As I look back it is clear that I carved a new path regarding the nature of early cognitive development and the related theoretical implications.