A Psychology Professor’s Path to Columbia Started at Barnard

Nim Tottenham, the new chair of psychology, has a longstanding interest in how parents influence brain development.

Christopher D. Shea
August 28, 2023

Nim Tottenham, a professor of psychology who became chair of the Department of Psychology this summer, first developed an interest in the field when she was an undergrad at Barnard. While working on her senior thesis in the Barnard Toddler Center, she began what has become a career-long exploration of how the childhood brain develops, and what role parents play in that development.

“Humans spend a decade or two hanging around our parents, which is metabolically very expensive,” Tottenham, one of the winners of this year’s student-nominated Presidential Teaching Awards for outstanding teaching, said in a recent interview. What are the advantages of that long childhood, which exceeds that of so many other species? One way to think of it, she said, is that childhood is like a rehearsal preceding the full run of the show, which is adulthood: “The longer the rehearsal process,” she said, “the better opening night is going to be.”

As Tottenham took the reins of her department this summer, Columbia News caught up with her to discuss her lab’s current work, how research affects her own parenting, and the role Columbia and Morningside Heights have played in her life.

What first drew you to psychology?

I did my undergrad at Barnard, and I did my senior thesis at the Barnard Toddler Center, which emphasizes the importance of the parent-child relationship in subsequent behavioral development. That was one important step in my intellectual development.

When I was in graduate school, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology was becoming a widespread technique that we could use to study brains, including the brains of children. The first fMRI paper published with healthy children was in 1995. It was by BJ Casey, who's now a Barnard professor. I was able to work with BJ while I was in graduate school, and I became very interested in studying the neurobiology of emotional development.

As soon as I started that, it became clear that I could not study emotional development in a vacuum. If I was going to study the neurobiology of emotions and stress, I would have to understand the role of the caregiver in scaffolding that neurobiology.

What makes parent-child relationships so interesting to you?

It's hard not to be interested in parent-child relationships in general, because they're so complex and so long-lasting and in very obvious ways influence who we are as people.

Obviously, parents are important for giving us shelter and food and supporting us. But parents also play a really fundamental and often overlooked role in shaping the way that our central nervous system develops.

Just about everybody has some kind of parent figure in their lives, and when something is omnipresent, it's easy to take it for granted, even though it may be exerting a huge and fundamental influence. I liken it to gravity. Gravity is omnipresent and plays a fundamental role in the way that we physically develop. But we don't really pay attention to it because it's there all the time. With parents, too, we often focus on what type of parenting behaviors they exhibit—if they're a nurturing parent or a less nurturing one. And that's important, but also important, but maybe less appreciated, is the mere fact that a parent exists is also exerting a tremendous influence on our development.

What does an experiment that tests the effects of parental involvement look like?

A lot of our experiments use the parent as a stimulus. We have children perform a task in the parent’s presence and then when the parent is absent. We often see changes in both the child's behavior as well as in their brain activity, as measured by an fMRI, based on the parent’s presence or absence.

What we find helps us better understand the development of children who may have had disruptions to their caregiving relationship, whether because of permanent separations from caregivers, or other forms of maltreatment. Working with children with a more typical caregiving history helps us better understand and make theoretical models to understand why early caregiving adversities place individuals at greater risk for behavioral problems in adulthood. Having more difficulty regulating emotions is something we see in children who had adverse caregiving experiences in childhood—in other words, childhoods that included maltreatment and lacked stable and sufficient nurturance.

Your lab is working on a lot right now. Is there anything that stands out to you as a major new area of research and discovery?

One of the things that we've been discovering as we investigate brain development following early-life stress is that the brain actually seems to be making adaptations to early stressors.

That wasn't always the prevailing theme in brain research following early-life stress. Very often the heuristic view was that early-life stress led to deficits in brain development. But instead, what seems to be a more accurate way to describe the findings is that the brain makes adaptations to meet challenges as best as it can, and everyone's brain is doing this every day.

Those adaptations can be useful in some contexts, and they may present challenges in other contexts, even within the same individual. For example, a history of unstable caregiving has been associated with an enhanced ability to switch attentional focus rapidly and effectively, which can be helpful in contexts where the environment is changing rapidly. But that same ability may present challenges when more focused attention is needed in different contexts, like in the classroom.

Has your research on parenting changed anything about how you parent?

Sometimes I get asked if studying what I study makes me nervous about making mistakes, since I know how important experiences are in shaping children. For me, it’s the opposite. It makes me less nervous. Because what I recognize is that, for the most part, the things that influence children's lives in a lasting way are the patterns; the day-in, day-out. I think that if we can stay healthy, well-regulated adults, we're engaging in patterns and routines that are going to foster healthy development in our children as well. The things that tend to leave impressions on us are the things we learn repeatedly, over and over. Generally that’s going to leave a bigger impression. Some small parenting mistake is unlikely to leave an indelible trace.

After attending Barnard you went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, and then came back to New York during grad school for a research stint. And of course you’ve been back here since 2014 as a faculty member. How did it feel to return in grad school and as a faculty member to the place you went to college?

Morningside Heights is where my husband and I met as undergrads. My children played on the steps of Low Library as babies when I was in grad school. To come back here as a faculty member feels very warm. I was a professor at UCLA before joining Columbia and I really felt like I was on my hero’s journey home when I moved back to the East Coast. Columbia and Morningside Heights feel like home.

I have to ask: Your lab’s website references a study called “Emotion Learning Poop Fairy (ELPF).” What is that?

I have a former postdoc who’s now an assistant professor at UCLA, Bridget Callaghan. We had a sit down when she was considering transferring into my lab, and she asked if she could add a variable to an ongoing study that looked at how early social environments affect emotional learning. She’s very interested in the gut. And so what she did is she collected stool staples from kids, in a very non-invasive way, obviously. It was a simple concept: “You give us your poop, we’ll give you a research stipend.” We wanted to see how the gut was responding to different environmental stimuli. And that’s how the poop fairy came about.

You started as department chair this summer. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about your plans for the department?

Psychology is one of the largest majors at Columbia, and the department has a long tradition of excellence in research. My goal as chair is to maintain that legacy and continue to provide an enriching experience in psychological science to students not only through excellent classes, but also through our many research opportunities and close mentorship.