Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008
Linda B. Smith
Chancellor's Professor; Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Cognitive Science
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Program in Cognitive Science
College of Arts and Sciences
University Graduate School
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1977
B.S., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1973
Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1977
"Linda is rightly famous for her work on cognitive development. In an area where many researchers make vague, unsupported claims, Linda has been a hard-nosed scientist. Today, Linda is one of the most celebrated, respected, brilliant, influential, and productive cognitive scientists in the world."
--Richard M. Shiffrin, Luther Dana Waterman Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University Bloomington
Linda B. Smith is not just an academic superstar, she's a downright celebrity.
"Linda is rightly famous for her work on cognitive development. In an area where many researchers make vague, unsupported claims, Linda has been a hard-nosed scientist," writes Richard M. Shiffrin, a colleague in the Indiana University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "Today, Linda is one of the most celebrated, respected, brilliant, influential, and productive cognitive scientists in the world."
Since joining the IU faculty in 1977, straight out of graduate school, Smith has earned international recognition as a leader in the field of cognitive development. She has published more than 130 articles and book chapters on a variety of topics in perceptual, conceptual, and language development. She has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Society and the Society of Experimental Psychologists. She regularly publishes in the top journals of her field, including Psychological Science, Psychological Review, Journal of Cognitive Science, and Child Development. Today, she is chair of the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
And yet she is a revolutionary. In 1994, she and colleague Esther Thelen published the pioneering book, A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action. This landmark volume proposed a new theory in the development of human cognition and action called dynamic systems theory. Simply put, they argued that all the parts of a system work together to create some action -- for example, a baby successfully grasping a toy. The limbs, the muscles, and the baby's visual perception of a toy all unite to produce the reaching movement. Before this approach took hold in the field, most developmental psychologists subscribed to the neuromaturational theory of infant motor development, which holds that as the brain gets bigger and better, it instructs the body to do more complicated things.
"Linda's work played a critical role in changing the landscape of developmental psychology, bringing systems theory from the fringes of the field to the front and center of mainstream developmental research," writes Karen E. Adolph, professor of psychology and neural sciences at New York University.
In her work on concept acquisition, Smith has effectively combined computational modeling with experiments involving young children -- a rare feat in developmental psychology. In fact, she has a reputation for being one of the top experimentalists in the world. She is perhaps best known for her work on the shape bias and its effect on word learning. In the lab, she has shown that children around 24 months pay more attention to shape than to the color or texture of new objects and that their word learning is faster when children have a good handle on shape.
Consider the fact that many of her test subjects are in the throes of the "terrible twos," and you realize just how brilliant Smith truly is. "Her experiments are wonderfully insightful, impeccably designed, and truly cut to the quick. This is no small feat within developmental science where the topic is extremely complex and the children can be extremely off-task!" writes John P. Spencer, a former student, who is co-director of the Iowa Center for Developmental and Learning Sciences as well as an associate professor in the University of Iowa psychology department.
Smith has left an indelible mark on the field of developmental psychology -- and on the many students she has mentored. Maria D. Sera, currently a full professor at the top-ranked developmental psychology program at the University of Minnesota, owes her career to Smith. "In the spring of 1982, I took a seminar from her on conceptual development," she writes. "That seminar was a turning point in my life. It was so interesting and so fun. I was hooked. To this day, when I consult with her about a problem, she can offer the magical insight within a few seconds. She is a wonderful role model and a great source of inspiration, both as a scholar and as a person."