Cathi Propper

Cathi Propper is senior scientist within and interim director of the UNC Center for Developmental Science. Her research focuses on the physiological functioning, temperament, and genetics of infants and how their early experiences influence their social-emotional, cognitive, and behavioral development.

Cathi Propperphoto by Megan May
July 25th, 2018

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

An artist! I always thought it would be fun to illustrate books or comic strips like “Peanuts” or “Calvin and Hobbes.” I believed this is what I would do until sixth grade, when I finally accepted that I didn’t have any artistic talent. I still really wish that I had some natural talent — or, at least, the time to take some courses to develop it.


“Nature or nurture? It’s both!”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

After graduating from college with a psychology degree, I was excited to put it to use. I was always interested in people and what made them tick, but I wasn’t exactly sure about what population I wanted to focus on. The Columbine High School shooting changed that. I wanted to learn more about the two boys who did it, and the families that they came from. What would drive children to do something like this? Were they born that way? Did they experience trauma, abuse, or bullying that affected them along the way? As I thought about this event in particular, I began to wonder more generally about what makes us similar and different from one another. That year, I applied to a graduate program in developmental psychology to study children and their families.

Propper enjoys a beach vacation in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, with her husband (not pictured) and two sons.

Propper enjoys a beach vacation in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, with her husband (not pictured) and two sons.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

For a study on behavioral and physiological functioning in the preschool classroom, I wanted children to wear a heart rate monitor throughout the morning for several hours while they engaged in their normal activities. But my team and I soon realized that the cardiac data coming in was a complete mess, and we couldn’t quite figure out why, since these monitors worked perfectly well in other contexts. After careful consideration, we realized that children at this age like to run — and after running around the classroom and on the playground, they are sweaty! The stickers that held the monitors in place were sliding all over their bodies. With the appropriate safe and comfortable medical tape, and additional guidance for parents (please no lotion!), we were able to get those monitors to stick and gathered some really innovative data.

What are your passions outside of research?

My family. I have two young sons who keep me pretty busy. I have been surprised about how excited and knowledgeable I have become about youth soccer and basketball and, yes, video games. I spend much of my time at their activities. It’s exciting to see them grow and develop as part of a team while getting great exercise. I cherish these times while they are young and know that one day I’ll get back to my other passions like reading and traveling — and finally taking that art class!

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