CraigFest2015: A Man of Many Talents

Craig Harris, research coordinator at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, is retiring after 37 years.

        If you've heard of and – we humbly hope – been amazed by any of the groundbreaking research discoveries coming out of the Institute, then you've been amazed by work that Harris has helped produce.

If you’re among the thousands of families who have participated in an experiment at I-LABS over the past three decades, chances are you’ve met Harris.

If you're one of the dozens of researchers who have set up a lab here or collaborated with I-LABS researchers, you likely know him too.

Or maybe you've played in a band with him (he's played guitar for years, and started learning the clarinet a few years ago at age 60).

Photo caption: Harris (right) with Meltzoff at an I-LABS gathering in 2014 to celebrate Harris' 35 years at the University of Washington.

Harris has been the lab manager for I-LABS co-director Andrew Meltzoff since 1978. That’s about 25 years before the formation of I-LABS as we know it today, as an interdisciplinary research center housed in the Portage Bay Building at UW.

"Craig is an innovator, who is both self-effacing and intellectually generous. He says ‘yes, can do’ as a first reaction," Meltzoff said. "Any time we are presented with an unsolvable stumbling block, we turn to Craig. Any time we are looking for a novel piece of apparatus, we turn to Craig. Any time we want to pilot a new procedure, yes, we turn to Craig."

Meltzoff continued: Craig "is one of a kind—curious, caring, capable and brilliant—with an ability to think broadly and dive deeply. No wonder he is a beloved figure around here."

A Man of Many Talents

Harris will retire this summer after 37 years being the behind-the-scenes person for all the research and running the day-to-day operations for Meltzoff’s lab.

In this role, Harris has led parents and their children through experimental protocols, helped design experiments – including crafting novel toys to tap the surprising breadth of what young children know about themselves and the world around them.

He helped do the work that contributes to making the Institute a leader in interdisciplinary research in early learning and brain science.

And Harris is more than a baby tester. He also has a life outside of the lab. He's a man of many talents, who eagerly takes on new activities. For instance, he once sailed a boat with Meltzoff and Kuhl from Seattle to the San Juan Islands (and then back again) to participate in a research meeting on Orcas Island. That's four days each way.

Ever capable and adaptable, Harris ushered in computers to the lab in the early 1980s. And a few months ago he figured out how to display video in the specialized room that contains the Institute’s brain-imaging machine, the MEG.

"I enjoy the many facets of problem solving that go into designing and implementing research projects, including working with infants and their families, and collaborating with researchers with varied experiences," Harris said. "I also enjoy sharing what I have learned to help jump-start grad students and post docs on their own research endeavors."

His colleagues extol his virtues: caring, sharing, multitasker-extraordinaire, a man of many interests and talents. Many think of him as a sort of “baby whisperer,” a person whose calming demeanor has put generations of children – and their parents – at ease and who taught that skill to other researchers.

"From the moment they arrive, they're in on it," is how Harris describes his approach to talking with parents. "I try to include them in the quest for understanding how their amazing babies make sense of the world around them."

Growing Up In North Carolina

Born and raised with two sisters in eastern North Carolina, Harris graduated from high school at the top of his class (narrowly missing valedictorian status due to a competitor’s slightly better grade in a typing class).

He went to Davidson College in North Carolina to pursue math and science, but ended up taking more psychology and philosophy classes – perhaps foreshadowing his later interest in Meltzoff’s research. After graduating with a bachelor’s in psychology, Harris spent about five years as a research assistant for a multidisciplinary home visiting program that delivered family and infant education services to 33 counties in Appalachia.

Wanting to delve deeper into the research behind the clinical work, Harris decided in the mid-1970s to go to graduate school in early childhood special education. Weighing his options of which program to attend, he decided on UW because he regularly saw it cited as a leader in the field.

Early Years in the Meltzoff Lab

In 1978, in a class during the final year of his master’s degree at UW, an intriguing opportunity arose. Harris met a new psychology faculty member who was earning recognition for his work on infant learning and neonatal imitation.

That new faculty member was Meltzoff, who gave a guest lecture in Harris' class.

“It blew me away,” Harris said of hearing Meltzoff describe the 1977 study (click for pdf), published in Science. “He was showing something that Piaget said didn’t happen in babies until age 1.”

Harris went up to talk to Meltzoff after the lecture, and the two ended up walking back to Meltzoff’s lab in what is now known as the Center on Human Development and Disability. They spoke for several hours.

Meltzoff, intrigued by Harris’s mind, hired him as rapidly as possible. And then Harris was in on the ground floor, helping to build the lab from a mom-and-pop shop to the large organization it is today.

'Wow-ers' in Research Findings

Since the beginning the Meltzoff lab has published – as it continues to do – discoveries that helped change our views about infants and their capabilities.

Two findings, or "the wow-ers” as Harris calls them, that stand out to him:

• Newborn babies only 28 days old have the brain power to combine tactile and visual information, something no one thought that babies could do when Meltzoff's lab published their findings in a 1979 paper in Nature (click for pdf).
• Infants can remember, and then imitate, actions long after after first seeing the actions and then never see them again. Called "deferred imitation”, a series of studies published from the Meltzoff lab beginning in the mid-1980s demonstrated that babies can retain an internal representation that allows them to imitate an action up to four months after first encountering it.

More recently, Harris has become excited by the intersections of cognitive behavioral science and new neuroscience and brain imaging methodologies that are emerging at the Institute.

"I certainly would not have predicted a 37-year stint here, but have maintained a curiosity about 'how do we know what we know' and the puzzle of early cognitive development," he said.

1978 - 2015: What's the Biggest Difference?

One might think that the proliferation of computers and their involvement in how research is done might be the biggest difference Harris has seen across his career.

But Harris doesn't think so. Instead, it's all about the parents and public's attitudes about babies.

"People have always been amazed by what babies do – being amazed is a big part of what parenting is all about," Harris said.

But aside from that, little was known when he began his career about the great capacity of children. In the 1970s, infant cognition was a very new field.

"There's been a big shift in what research shows children's capabilities are," Harris said. "The general perception in the populace has dramatically changed and Andy's studies have greatly contributed to that."

What's next?

Harris starts his retirement in July, and he looks forward to spending more time with the hobbies that he has pursued over the years.

It will take several people at I-LABS, including those he's so adeptly trained, to take over the many roles Harris has held, and to keep the lab going strong and making the next breakthroughs.

"Craig's contributions will be felt for a long time, as his friends, colleagues, and trainees carry on the tradition of excellence that he has helped to establish at I-LABS," Meltzoff said.

Wish Harris a happy retirement over email.