Former Students, Colleagues Honor Leading Psychology Methodologist Nesselroade with 'Festschrift' Retirement Celebration

June 01, 2011

June 1, 2011 — Colleagues and former students gathered Monday in the Rotunda to honor John R. Nesselroade, who retires this month after a 20-year tenure as Hugh Scott Hamilton Professor of Psychology in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, with a special "festschrift" celebration.

In honor of Nesselroade's leading contributions to the field of lifespan development psychology, a field he pioneered through the authoring of seminal papers and teachings spanning seven decades, the daylong celebration included academic lectures by many of Nesselroade's former students and colleagues influenced by his work.

U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan extended her congratulations in a letter included in the ceremony program. "Your pioneering work in the psychology of aging has brought you worldwide recognition, and it is fitting that tonight your colleagues gather to honor you," she wrote.

Among Nesselroade's critical contributions to the field is his lifespan approach to the study of human development, or the cognitive, personality and emotional change individuals experience over their lifetimes. Whereas developmental psychology has traditionally focused on children and adolescents, and research on "aging" has traditionally targeted adults age 65 and above, Nesselroade's approach elucidated development as a continuous process across the entirety of one's lifespan.

In a 1991 publication, "The Warp and the Woof of the Developmental Fabric" – the title refers to the integration of cross-directional threads to create a woven textile – Nesselroade provided context for his approach. He noted that human cognition and emotion simultaneously vary on multiple timescales, with, for example, day-to-day changes composing intra-individual variability and long-term fluctuations composing intra-individual change. This approach paved the way for improved research methods to analyze human development.

"Understanding the course of human development across the lifespan is at the core of psychological research," said Dennis R. Proffitt, Commonwealth Professor of Psychology and chair of the U.Va. Department of Psychology. "John has developed powerful techniques for the quantitative modeling of human nature, which changes over time under the influence of a multiplicity of different factors. His research contributions in multivariate quantitative modeling define the state of the art and provide the tools required to ask the really big questions in psychological research."

Nesselroade's influence on psychology research and methodology is manifested in more than 120 peer-reviewed publications, more than 50 chapters and seven books. His contributions have earned him worldwide renown, and he has been honored with numerous prestigious awards recognizing his research contributions, outstanding publications, mentorship and distinguished career achievements.

"In Germany, Sweden, the UK and across Europe, John Nesselroade is seen as one of the leading methodologists and theoreticians in developmental psychology," said Ulman Lindenberger, long-time collaborator and director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

"John's influence has encouraged researchers to link change to variability, to regard the developing person as the basic unit of analysis, and to design multivariate statistical tools that capture system dynamics. As a result, the cross-sectional and descriptive developmental mainstream is slowly but steadily being replaced by a developmental science that attracts the best students and is able to compete and collaborate with other exciting fields of inquiry, such as systems neuroscience and computational modeling," Lindenberger added.

Nesselroade sought such innovation and advancement for the field throughout his career, once advising John J. "Jack" McArdle, another longtime collaborator and friend, that "Anyone can tell us what they already know, but few of us can figure out the things we don't. So please do learn what you can, and then … tell me!"

"John's creativity speaks for itself, and his reputation as one of the greatest of all psychologists continues to grow," said McArdle, now a senior professor of psychology and head of the Quantitative Methods Area at the University of Southern California. "He is known all over the world as one of the smartest and kindest people in psychology.

"Of course, it has been my pleasure to work with him for over 30 years, and I can surely say I have never met a better person."

Over the course of Nesselroade's career, he has guided generations of undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students, many of whom have also gone on to achieve distinction in the field.

Former student Steven M. Boker, who earned his Ph.D. in psychology in 1996, is now professor and director of U.Va.'s Human Dynamics Laboratory and Quantitative Psychology Area. Recognized as an expert in dynamical systems modeling, Boker has developed statistical software tools that have further advanced psychology research and methodology.

"John's approach to psychology is that the life course is a process, and we must understand how that process unfolds for each individual if we are to understand both how we differ from one another as well as how we are similar," Boker said. "John practices what he preaches when it comes to the individual. His attention to what is unique in each student has endeared him to those who have had the privilege to call him mentor."

Nesselroade's former students have gone on to join the faculty of several additional leading institutions in the field, including Pennsylvania State University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Geneva.

"As a dedicated researcher, an innovative thinker, a great teacher, and a fantastic and empowering mentor to his students, John is the ultimate example of everything we as his students want to do right in the field. It's a privilege to consider him a mentor, colleague and friend," said Ryne Estabrook, whom Nesselroade hooded last month as his final Ph.D. student. Estabrook is now a post-doctoral fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University's Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

To what does Nesselroade attribute his own career success? "Attaining success in one's career is easy," he advised, "choose your collaborators and students well."


After completing three years of service in the United States Marine Corps, John R. Nesselroade earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Marietta College in 1961 and master's and doctoral degrees in psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He then served on the faculty in the Department of Psychology at West Virginia University and at Penn State's College of Human Development, holding a variety of research, teaching and administrative positions. He also served as a visiting senior fellow at the Max Planck Institute beginning in 1981. He joined the U.Va. faculty in 1991, where he founded and directed the Center for Developmental and Health Research Methodology.

Nesselroade is charter fellow of the American Psychological Society and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, and the Gerontological Society of America. He is also a member of the selective Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology and the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development.

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