Emory Report
November 7, 2005
Volume 58, Number 10


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November 7 , 2005
Well of questions

BY Rachel Robertson

Sherryl Goodman is a scientist to the core. She likes to think about things. She is inspired by questions and seeks precise answers. This scientific passion was stirred by her dual interests of child development and psychopathology.

“I was just captivated how kids differed throughout the course of development—stage-specific phenomenon that you can see so clearly,” said Goodman, professor of psychology. “And then [after] learning about psychopathology and seeing how some behaviors in kids are totally normative at certain points in time but at later points could reveal psychopathology…I was just fascinated by that.”

Although her faculty position and nearly 30-year career studying children of mothers with depression now seem a perfect fit for her, it was a series of chance occurrences and good luck that brought Goodman to this point.

In college, it was, perhaps, not so obvious that she would make a great scientist when she registered for psychology only to avoid taking chemistry or physics and still meet Connecticut College’s lab science requirement. She was fortunate; she had a great professor in that first psychology course who lit a spark in her.

“He taught psychology as if it were a suspense novel,” she said. Halfway through class, the professor would begin describing a study, always running out of time just before he got to the results.

“This was my first exposure to the idea of a career path where people could contribute,” Goodman continued. “I thought, ‘Gee, this is something I could do, and 20 years from now somebody could be talking about one of my studies.’”

It was that same professor who later advised Goodman she would need a Ph.D. to do what she wanted. Since she and her sister were the first in their family to get even bachelor’s degrees, the first thing Goodman asked was, “What’s that?” But, after explaining a bit about academia, the patient professor cautioned her against pursuing a degree in developmental psychology. At the time, the only career option in the field was to secure a university faculty position—rare for women. Instead, the professor urged her to go into clinical psychology, which would give her more options.

“He was watching out for me,” Goodman said. “He couldn’t have known that, five years later when I had my degree and was out looking for jobs, universities would wake up to the fact that it might be
a good idea to hire a woman.”

What Goodman really wanted to do was combine developmental and abnormal psychology, a desire that anticipated the field of developmental psychopathology. Studying children of depressed mothers, though, was not her initial choice. It took another moment of serendipity to bring her to that pursuit.

When Goodman began her career, studying schizophrenia was considered an ideal way to look at risk factors for mental disorders, given the knowledge that offspring of schizophrenic parents were more likely to develop the disorder than others. Goodman’s developmental bent motivated her instead to look for environmental (as opposed to genetic) factors; her first grant proposal sought to identify parenting practices of mothers with schizophrenia that might lead to increased risk for the disorder in their children.

Reviewers of the grant suggested adding a control group, comprised of mothers with depression, that would allow Goodman to distinguish factors specific to schizophrenia from those general to any disorder. She followed their suggestion, the grant proposal became her first funded project at Emory, and the subsequent study’s findings not only surprised Goodman but led her on a new research path.

Goodman observed the mother-child interactions herself, unaware of which mothers suffered from schizophrenia and which from depression. She’d thought she would be able to tell who was in which group but found that she couldn’t distinguish them at all.

“It gradually dawned on me that this was important,” Goodman said. “If I couldn’t tell as an adult, what is a baby going to know?”

Generally both groups of women were less emotionally involved with and less responsive to their children than typical mothers, and poverty figured prominently into the mix. These were women struggling to provide the necessities for their families; they did not have much time or energy left over for mental stimulation.

Beyond discovering that mothers with mental disorders parent differently from others—and how they parent makes a difference in the outcomes for their children—Goodman gained other valuable insights that shaped her future research. She realized that studying depressed mothers allowed her to examine parental influences in which she was most interested, and a broader definition of environment (one that includes such factors as social support, marital stability and stress) was required to understand the world of infants born to these mothers.

Over the years, Goodman’s research has expanded as each finding generated more questions, and collaborations opened new possibilities and methods. To find out if treatment for depression would alter parenting style, Goodman collaborated with Zachary Stowe, associate professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine. In a study of women suffering from postpartum depression, Goodman and her students measured parent-child interactions and child functioning both before and after Stowe treated the mothers for depression.

They found that mothers’ reduced levels of depression—even after just three months of treatment—were associated with improvements in quality of interactions with their infants and in the infants’ quality of play. These findings not only demonstrated the importance of clinical intervention in maternal depression but lent support to Goodman’s theory about the role of parenting and the association of such depression with child functioning.

While working with these women, Goodman observed that many were depressed during pregnancy, which inspired questions of what the fetus was experiencing. In a six-year study now nearly complete, Goodman followed mothers with prior episodes of depression from early in their pregnancy until their children reached 12 months of age.

Among many other measures, Goodman tracked women’s levels of cortisol (a hormone often associated with stress) through pregnancy to determine if its levels could predict infant outcomes. Graduate student Diana Simeonova-Lennon analyzed the data for her master’s thesis; to the surprise of both graduate student and professor, cortisol levels did not correlate with the mother’s depression. This contradicts the assumption, made by many researchers (including Goodman), that cortisol levels would correlate with depression levels and help explain vulnerabilities in the infants.

Of course, not every child born of mothers with depression has negative outcomes, and Goodman wants to know why.

“I want to know for two reasons,” said Goodman. “You want to understand how in some families these problems don’t happen, because we can learn from that and use it to design an intervention. The other reason is that the more precisely we can identify the kids who have problems, the better we will be able to target the interventions.”

Two recent studies in Goodman’s lab sought to identify child characteristics that might temper negative outcomes for children of depressed mothers. Graduate student Erin Tully’s dissertation work focused on preschool children’s ability to cope with their mothers’ displays of emotion. Currently, Goodman and Tully are working with 11- to 17-year-olds to determine what beliefs (such as blaming themselves for their mother’s depression) contribute to negative outcomes in the child.

Goodman sees no end to her questions. “Even with my classes, I’m always raising questions and pointing out ideas that haven’t been studied yet,” she said. “I look around to see who has that little spark, and I say, ‘Would you please do that study for me? You’ll have to get this or that degree, and learn this or that methodology, but six years from now you could be doing this study.’”

“I see that as carrying on the heritage from my professor,” Goodman said. “I don’t know that I do it as well as he did, but I try.”