IHD People & News

Susan Ervin-Tripp, pioneering psycholinguist and feminist, dies at 91

Susan Ervin-Tripp, a psycholinguist acclaimed for her pioneering studies of bilingualism and language development in children, native Americans and immigrants, died earlier this month in Oakland from complications of an infected cut. She was 91.

A widely cherished UC Berkeley professor emerita of psychology and an early advocate for gender equity in academia, Ervin-Tripp remained intellectually, socially and politically active after she retired in 1999, and right up until her death on Nov. 13.

Among other notable achievements, Ervin-Tripp, a 1974 Guggenheim fellow, discovered that people’s mindsets can change depending on the language they are speaking, providing new insights into the cognitive psychology of bilingualism.

“She was a pathbreaker, embracing new directions in the study of first-language acquisition as well as bilingualism,” said UC Berkeley psychology professor emeritus Dan Slobin. “In addition to groundbreaking scholarly work, she focused on the treatment of women and minorities, yet always using her psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic skills to provide a scientific foundation to her advocacy.”

Ann Kring, UC Berkeley chair of psychology, recalls how Ervin-Tripp’s steadfast activism led to the 1971 creation of the Academic Senate’s Standing Committee on the Status of Women, which later became the Committee on the Status of Women and Ethnic Minorities, of which she served as chair.

“This, along with actions by Sue and many other women on campus, led to significant increases in hiring of women faculty and movement toward pay equity between male and female faculty members,” Kring said. “She was a beloved member of the department, never shy to express her views but also keen to listen and understand others. She will be missed.”

Ervin-Tripp’s husband of 54 years, Robert Tripp, is a professor emeritus of physics at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.


Groundbreaking research

Her efforts paid off. In a 1964 experiment, she showed a series of illustrations to bilingual French adults living in the United States and asked them to invent a three-minute story for each image. In describing each scene, the storytellers emphasized certain interpersonal dynamics in English and entirely different ones in French.

In a 1968 experiment of Japanese women married to American men in San Francisco, she found that the wives’ answers differed dramatically depending on the language in which the questions were asked. The results suggest human thought and feeling is expressed within language mindsets.

In 1975, Ervin-Tripp secured a faculty position in the psychology department, where she focused on early language development in mono- and bilingual children.

As her own children grew older, their language acquisition, jokes and insults became material for her research papers. She made presentations on such topics as “Gender differences in the construction of humorous talk,” “It was hecka funny: Some features of children’s conversational development” and “Risky laughter: Teasing and self-directed joking among male and female friends.”

Among other honors, she received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1974 and a Cattel fellowship in psychology in 1985. She was also a dedicated research psychologist in the Institute of Human Development and the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. In 2000, she served as president  of the International Pragmatics Association.

In her 70s, Ervin-Tripp acknowledged that she was slowing down physically, and so would give her beloved downhill skiing one last go.

“It was apparent it might be necessary to stop because of arthritis, so I thought I would really enjoy that run,” she wrote in an email to her family. “Because at my age anything you like to do may suddenly be unavailable. But it is not sad. It just means enjoy. It’s like mindfulness training.”

That combination of tenacity, resilience and cheerful optimism is what made Ervin-Tripp so remarkable, family members said.

“She never fully accepted slowing down with age and had a fire of curiosity until the very end that she shared with everyone whose life touched hers,” said her daughter, Katya Tripp. “The intensity of the light of who she was is irreplaceable, and we miss her terribly.”

Ervin-Tripp is survived by her husband, Robert Tripp, of Berkeley; sons, Alexander Tripp of New York, and Nico Tripcevich, of Berkeley; daughter, Katya Tripp of Portland, Oregon; daughters-in-law Suzanne Murray and Cheyla Samuelson; and granddaughters Clara Tripp, Iva Borrello and Sofia Tripcevich.

A campus memorial to celebrate the life and legacy of Ervin-Tripp will be held in the spring. For more details about the event, email ervin.tripp.memorial@gmail.com

Posted on November 30, 2018

In Remembrance of Dorothy H. Eichorn


Known to her friends and colleagues as “Dot,” Dorothy H. Eichorn died peacefully on March 22, 2018, at the Meadows of Napa Valley, where she was receiving skilled nursing care. She was attended at her passing by her son Eric and her longtime caregiver Monica Johnson. Her health had been in decline for several years due to Lewy body dementia.

Dorothy Marie Hansen was born on November 18, 1924, in Montpelier, Vermont. She was raised there by her parents George Marinus Hansen and Lula Maria (Ryan) Hansen, along with her younger sister Laurel (Mrs. Frederick Reed) and her cousin Helen (Mrs. Harry Betts), whom she always considered to be her elder sister. She had a half-brother, Harry Ryan, who died while serving in the Navy when she was a small child. Her father worked for the National Life Insurance Company and her mother managed a local grocery store. Dot attended Montpelier High School where she was on the debate team, as was her sister Laurel. She was salutatorian of her 1941 graduating class.

She received her B.A. cum laude with special honors in psychology (with a minor in zoology) in 1947 at the University of Vermont, her M.A. in psychology in 1949 at Boston University, and her Ph.D. in psychology (with a minor in physiology) in 1951 at Northwestern University. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

While attending UVM she had various part time jobs, including with the Vermont Church Council. In the course of that employment she met Herman “Ike” Eichorn, a young pastor serving in his first parish. After a period of courtship, Ike proposed marriage. Dot initially declined, saying that she wanted to continue her education and have a career in psychology. When he surprised her by saying, “You can do both,” she reconsidered and they were married in June 1947. While Dot obtained her advanced degrees, Ike continued his pastoral work in Vermont and then trained in chaplaincy in Elgin, Illinois. After Dot received her doctorate in 1951, they moved to Napa, where he was Protestant Chaplain at Napa State Hospital until his retirement in 1987. Their son Eric was born in 1955.

Dot became a research psychologist at the Institute of Human Development (IHD) at the University of California, Berkeley in late 1951. For the first few years she also lectured at UCB in physiology and then quit teaching to concentrate on research. She was involved in a number of studies of child development, but perhaps the most notable was the Berkeley Growth Study, a longitudinal study of physical and mental development that started with a subject pool of babies born in Berkeley in 1928-29 and followed them through childhood and into adulthood. By the 1960s she and colleague Dr. Nancy Bayley were collecting data on the children of the original subjects, and Dot took over as director of the study when Bayley left for a position at the National Institutes of Health. Dot became administrator of the Child Study Center, a nursery school operated by IHD, starting in 1962, and associate director of IHD starting in 1976. She retired from the University in 1989.

Her considerable administrative skills benefitted a number of professional societies as well as the Institute. She served on many committees and councils of the American Psychological Association, was a member of its Board of Directors from 1969-72 and was President of its Division on Developmental Psychology in 1968-69. She was a founding member of the American Psychological Society (now known as the Association for Psychological Science). She was President of the Western Psychological Association in 1988.

A group that benefitted greatly from Dot’s involvement was the Society for Research in Child Development. She was introduced to SRCD while at Northwestern by faculty member Dr. Tom Richards, who was its business manager. When she got to IHD, one of her colleagues, Harold Jones, M.D., was its President, and most of her other colleagues there were members, so she joined. She was actively involved with SRCD throughout the 1960s, and was recruited as Executive Officer in 1971 upon the death of Dr. Margaret Harlow who had held the position. The SRCD’s executive office was moved to Berkeley at that point. She served as EO until her retirement in 1989, when Dr. John Hagen took over the position. During her tenure, SRCD grew considerably in membership (from 2,000 to 4,000), budget, journal subscriptions, convention attendance, and influence in the field of child development. She is remembered by her colleagues for her strong organizational skills, balanced with a ready sense of humor.

Dot was preceded in death by her husband Ike and both of her sisters and their husbands. She is survived by her son Eric Eichorn of Hayward; by her nieces, Mary Luci Stephens of Goshen, Vermont, Martha Jo Reed of Lyndonville, Vermont, and Dorothy (Dody) Barrett of Northfield, Vermont; and by their partners, children, and grandchildren.

Posted on July 12, 2018

Intervention offering relationship-focused group work for parents recognised by the Children & Young People Now Awards

The Parents as Partners programme, a group-based approach to strengthening parental couple relationships and  family life, was named the 'Best Family Support Intervention' at the Children & Young People Now awards ceremony last night at the Lancaster Hotel, London.

The award recognised the work of Tavistock Relationships’ DWP-funded programme to parents which has reached over 600 parents across multiple sites in London, Manchester, Stockport, Croydon, Gateshead and Swansea.

The programme, which originated in the US, developed by Professors Phil and Carolyn Cowan along with their colleagues Professors Marsha Kline Pruett and Kyle Pruett, is inspired by research that shows parental relationships and the way couples communicate have a major impact on effective parenting and the wellbeing of children. Evaluation of the Parents as Partners programme by Tavistock Relationships, published this year in the journal Family Process, has shown it to be effective across a number of domains.  Results of delivery so far have produced significant:

  • improvement in the quality of the parents' relationship with each other
  • reduction in conflict between the parents (including disagreements about money, the children, time spent together), with the greatest improvements in poor quality, high conflict relationships;
  • reduction in violent problem-solving between the parents;
  • improvement in psychological wellbeing;
  • reduction in children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties

Members of the team were received the award in person at the event.  Tavistock Relationships’ Parents as Partners programme was the overall winner in the category of Family Support interventions, with the NSPCC’s Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together programme being highly commended. The Parents as Partners Programme leader, Lucy Draper said:

“It’s fantastic to see the years of work we have put in recognised in this way, and we are very grateful to receive this award.  Of course, what has sustained our work over the years is the pleasure of seeing the changes we make to the lives of parents and families. As group workers. we witness the often challenging journey so many parents make from the initial step of seeking support to the point of leaving the group, with new tools and ways of thinking about their relationships. The difference that parents tell us it has made, to their relationship with each other and with their children, is the greatest reward for our team.”

Posted on February 26, 2018

Hey Siri, an ancient algorithm may help you grasp metaphors

“The use of concrete language to talk about abstract ideas may unlock mysteries about how we are able to communicate and conceptualize things we can never see or touch,” said study senior author Mahesh Srinivasan, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. “Our results may also pave the way for future advances in artificial intelligence.”

Posted on July 6, 2017

Puberty hormones trigger changes in youthful learning

UC Berkeley study of mice reveals, for the first time, how puberty hormones might impede some aspects of flexible youthful learning.

Study finds puberty hormones trigger changes in the developing frontal brain

“We have found that the onset of puberty hits something like a ‘switch’ in the brain’s frontal cortex that can reduce flexibility in some forms of learning,” said study senior author Linda Wilbrecht, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

While gleaned from young female mice, the findings, published in the June 1 issue of the journal Current Biology, may have broad educational and health implications for girls, many of whom are entering the first stage of puberty as young as age 7 and 8.

“Puberty onset is occurring earlier and earlier in girls in modern urban settings – driven by such factors as stress and the obesity epidemic – and has been associated with worse outcomes in terms of school and mental health,” said Wilbrecht, a researcher at the campus’s Center on the Developing Adolescent.

Wilbrecht and her laboratory team at UC Berkeley and UCSF discovered significant changes in neural communication in the frontal cortices of female mice after they were exposed to pubertal hormones. The changes occurred in a region of the frontal brain that is associated with learning, attention and behavioral regulation.

“To our knowledge, this study is the first to demonstrate changes in cortical neurotransmission due to hormones at puberty,” said study lead author David Piekarski, a post-doctoral researcher in Wilbrecht’s lab.

Overall, children have been found to have greater brain flexibility or “plasticity” than adults, enabling them to more easily master multiple languages and other elementary scholastic pursuits.

While they continue to learn after puberty, their cognitive focus in adolescence is often redirected to peer relationships and more social learning. If hormonal changes start as early as second or third grade, when children are tasked with learning basic skills, a shift in brain function could be problematic, Wilbrecht said.

“We should be more thoughtful about aligning what we know about biology and education to accommodate the fact that many girls’ brains are shifting to this adolescent phase earlier than expected,” she said.

Pre-puberty mice found to be better at exploratory learning than post-pubertal mice (Photo by Jon Wilbrecht)

For the study, researchers induced puberty in some young female mice by injecting them with pubertal hormones such as estradiol and progesterone, and blocked puberty in others by removing their ovaries.

In measuring the electrical activity of brain cells in the frontal cortices of post-pubertal mice, they observed significant changes in the synaptic activity thought to regulate brain plasticity.

They also compared the higher-order learning strategies of pre-pubertal and post-pubertal mice by testing their ability to find Cheerios hidden in bowls of wooden shavings scented with licorice, clove, thyme or lemon.

After each mouse figured out which scent was paired with the Cheerio, that pairing was changed so the mice had to use trial and error to adapt to the change and learn the new rule.

Overall, researchers found that the post-pubertal mice had a harder time adapting to the rule changes than their pre-pubertal counterparts.

“These data demonstrate that puberty itself, not just age, plays a role in frontal cortex maturation,” the study concluded.

The study notes that future studies on males will be needed to determine if the present results apply to the male brain.

Josiah Boivin, a graduate student at UCSF, is a co-author on the study.

Posted on June 5, 2017