Humboldtians in Focus

Better to Be in Leipzig

By Uschi Heidel

From Atlanta to Leipzig and almost, but really only almost, back again. How the American development psychologist Tricia Striano discovered her love of Leipzig, and why East German mothers are a stroke of luck for research.

Light is falling through the tall window into the spacious hall of the old Leipzig building. The stairs of the wide wooden staircase creak with each step, so that nobody can go upstairs unnoticed. The first floor, and then the second floor. Tricia Striano is already waiting at her institute's door - a small, slender woman with short, dark blond hair, of Southern appearance. She is a petite person that one might easily be misled to underrate. "Please don't let this surprise you too much," says the head of three research teams and Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner, guiding her guest through light rooms the only furniture of which consists mainly of cardboard boxes. "Our children's laboratory is right in the middle of moving," the development psychologist explains, glancing around the temporary aspect of her workplace. Books are piled up on the windowsill and lie on the parquet floor, with an XXL version of "Captain Bluebear" sitting in an armchair. This popular TV teddy-bear is an unmistakeable sign of infants being welcome here. The 32- year-old researcher is interested in how small children learn to read people's face expressions. "We haven't got a coffee machine yet," she says, and suggests switching to the cafe on the ground floor for the talk.

Tricia Striano is used to new beginnings. When she came to Europe, and directly to Leipzig, for the first time, in 2000, she became head of the career development group on cultural ontogenesis at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. But she had neither a laboratory nor any contact to babies,who she requires for her development psychology studies. And when she received the prestigious Sofja Kovalevskaja Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, she had already given in notice for her flat, sold everything and was herself almost back home in the USA."New starts have lots of good sides, for example a new washing machine and furniture that does not come from IKEA," Tricia Striano grins.

Leaving the familiar behind

Today, she is pleased about challenges and radical changes. Five years ago, she would have loathed the mere thought of anything new. "I wanted to become a lecturer on the campus as quickly as possible and then stay there for good.Once I had been invited to Leipzig for an interview, I was seized by fear because I did not want to leave America," she remembers. Now, her parents, who run a wallpapering store in the Federal State of Massachusetts, think their own daughter has become "far too European". The scientist does not share this impression. But inside, she feels calmer, more relaxed and more grown-up than at the beginning of her stay in Germany. At the time, it was thoroughly incomprehensible to her that staff would not work over the weekend or that they took more than two weeks' off - "that would be impossible in the USA". She got mad when workmen didn't finish their work immediately or when nobody would repair her computer on a Sunday. "You have difficulties accommodating if you come from a 24-hour-service-based society."However, some of her senior research colleagues also had difficulties. For they found it hard to appreciate the leadership competencies of the young group head. There was a fair amount of friction that got on her nerves. In fact,Tricia Striano was about to turn her back on the entire academic world.

“I jumped in the air and felt where I really wanted to go.”

An experienced football-player, she displayed a sportive attitude and has managed to hold her own. She feels good in Leipzig and gets on well with the East Germans, although they could perhaps be a little more optimistic instead of always worrying about what won't work. When Tricia Striano talks about the Leipzig parents, the indispensable partners for her baby research, she is full of praise for them. "Right from the onset, doctors and parents were open-minded about my experiments and were interested in them," she recalls.All of the usually West German warnings about mothers fussing around their children like mother hens and being overcautious lest something could happen to them proved wrong. "Nearly every mother was ready to take part in the behavioural tests with her baby. This had been completely different in the USA. Parents there are very anxious, and newborn children bear name tags with alarms. At best, I felt tolerated in the clinics," the researcher reports.

No to Nashville but yes to Leipzig

In autumn 2004, Tricia Striano was just about to take up an attractive post at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, when the news about the award came from Germany: around a million euros and up to four years of academic activities free of administrative restraints at an institute of her own choice. "I jumped in the air and felt where I really wanted to go." Tricia Striano went back to Leipzig.

She had already found the working conditions and facilities at the Max Planck Institute unique back in 2002. "I would never have got a position with so much freedom and such funding in the USA." The children's laboratory in the old Leipzig building is a joint institution of Leipzig University's Centre for Advanced Studies and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Soon, around 15 staff are to carry on with their research activities in the renovated rooms. Tricia Striano loves working with her test persons, who are just a few weeks old: "Above all, it takes a lot of humour." She thinks it is especially exciting that the little ones can't speak yet. "I have to try and recognise what is going on inside them by way of their reactions. This opens up perspectives that are different from when the babies can clearly express themselves using language."

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Tricia Striano Tricia Striano 

Tricia Striano, born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, USA. Studied psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts, and at Emory University of Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Doctorate at Emory University of Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Head of the career development group on cultural ontogenesis at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Sofja Kovalevskaja Award Winner of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research: head of the research team for neurocognition and development at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and at Leipzig University’s Centre for Advanced Studies.

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