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Meet Heidi Kloos

From the mountains of Transylvania to the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert and now, to the Ohio River Valley: Heidi Kloos' travels have definitely provided a diverse backdrop for her academic pursuits.

Date: 5/17/2007
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
From the mountains of Transylvania to the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert and now, to the Ohio River Valley: Heidi Kloos' travels have definitely provided a diverse backdrop for her academic pursuits.

"Believe it or not, I grew up in a small mountain village in Transylvania (part of Rumania), together with Dracula Vlad Tepes and all those vampires that most of us know only from stories," said Kloos, assistant professor of psychology.

"As a teenager, I moved to Frankfurt, Germany, right before the collapse of the Romanian communism, and a few years later I started my degree in psychology at the University of Tuebingen in southern Germany. Unlike in the U.S., universities in Germany are by and large very similar to each other. I chose Tuebingen because it has a large partner program with U.S. universities."

Six years later, Kloos moved on to one of those partners, Arizona State University. After spending a year at ASU as a German exchange student, she was accepted into their graduate program in developmental psychology.

"One led to the other, and before I knew it, the unbelievable happened: I got my PhD, the first in my family," she said. Post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Massachusetts and at The Ohio State University followed.

There was no early signs, Kloos said, that she would pursue the career in which she landed.

Assistant professor of psychology Heidi Kloos, pictured with associate professor Ken Ghee, directs UC's Children's Cognitive Research lab.

"A good answer would be, of course, that I dreamed to work as a psychology researcher ever since I was 3," she said. "But reality was unfortunately way less predictable. I picked psychology out of feeling deeply insecure over being a poor immigrant from Romania. Psychology didn't require prior knowledge (it is not taught in high school), it didn't require special skills (like medicine would), and it did not require any family connections to succeed (like law school might). So I felt it was a good fit for me. I ended up liking research quite a bit, and I love theoretical discussions and arguments. Well, and of course, I love the freedom that comes with getting to choose the content of my job every day. But I never felt like I chose this career path. It's more like it chose me."

Kloos' area of expertise is in cognitive development and educational psychology, with her research focusing on topics of children's thinking and development. She is teaching an advanced course in statistics to undergraduate majors, and next quarter, will teach a capstone course on young children's learning in collaboration with the Children's Science Museum.

"Most learning takes place without any explicit instruction, yet we know little about how such 'naive' learning happens. This is especially true when it comes to young children's learning," she said. "As soon as children can talk (and possibly even before), they already know something about physical regularities, they can distinguish between different concepts and categories, and they constantly marvel at the cause of what they see. How did they learn about these things? And why do they fail to learn sometimes? Several developmental theories compete in addressing how knowledge emerges, but little progress has been made to resolve the conflict. I'm hoping to change this, together with colleagues who share my beliefs about how knowledge emerges."

There are, she said, too many people to count when it comes to those from whom she has drawn inspiration and encouragement.

"That saying about needing a village is probably nowhere truer than when it comes to raising a scientist. I had my village," she said. "And while not every lesson was pleasant, and many days ended without any encouragement at all, inspiration was easy to find. I am most indebted to my mentors, Fritz Wilkening, University of Tuebingen; Sue Somerville, ASU; Rachel Keen, UMass; and Vladimir Sloutsky, OSU. And of course, I would not be where I am right now without my husband, Guy Van Orden."

As for how she wound up at UC? "UC was not directly looking for someone with my research interests," she said. "They hired me in the hope that I will eventually find my role. I hope I won't disappoint them."

Her main strengths on the job, Kloos said, "are being open-minded, hard-working, and charming at times."

"I like taking on challenges, I like when I succeed, and I like helping others to succeed," she said. "Luckily, I'm also quite naive about too many things, making me appreciate any advice from established faculty, be it about teaching or mentoring students, responding to reviewers, or applying for grants.

"Students teach me less practical but maybe even more important lessons: they teach me (sometimes painfully) about what a good educator is, what it takes to communicate, and how to be a leader. And given that I'm interested in knowledge development, I get to learn from them how well my theory works in practice."

And in her off-time, she's still studying politics.

"Yes, I fill any spare time with watching, listening to, or reading about the news," Kloos said. "This is kind of ironic, given that I grew up in a place where there was no news at all, not about any reality, at least."

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