Rona Carter: 2010 Libby Douvan Junior Scholar in Life Course Development

By Susan Rosegrant

To help put herself through Florida International University while earning her undergraduate degree in psychology, Rona Carter took a job at the Miami-based PACE Center for Girls, a non-profit school targeting 12- to 18-year-old at-risk girls. Carter was an administrative assistant, but she got to know some of the students well—students who were struggling with truancy, depression, delinquency, and other problems. Sometimes she took girls on field trips purely for fun. But she also recruited them to help her write stories and take photos for the school newsletter. Others she escorted on college tours, hoping to light a spark of possibility. “I wondered what happened to these girls, why are they here?” Carter recalls.

Rona Carter (Photo by Eva Menezes)

Those early questions pointed Carter towards the research she’s now doing at ISR. As a post-doc and the first Libby Douvan Junior Scholar, Carter is investigating how biological and physical changes associated with puberty influence girls’ behavioral and psychological adjustments. At the PACE Center, Carter says, some of the girls who were having a hard time had hit puberty early, and had larger breasts and other physical developments that set them apart from their peers. “Someone could look as if she was a woman, yet she was still the same age as someone who looked like a child,” she explains. “So I wondered, could puberty somehow play a role in these negative outcomes that I was seeing with girls?”

Carter believes the answer is yes. But she’s also discovered that puberty involves a complex web of factors that confronts maturing girls.

In fact, her research shows that the actual age of onset appears less important than how a girl interprets the event. That, Carter says, is influenced by how her parents and peers react, but perhaps most importantly by how she herself perceives her timing relative to her peers. Girls who mature early can face a range of pressures, including awkwardness with friends and come-ons from suddenly interested older boys. Girls who mature late may feel left out, unpopular, and depressed.

Carter, who had a nomadic childhood as the youngest of four daughters of a military man, hopes that her research may some day result in improved programs to help girls navigate their coming-of-age years with less stress and depression and fewer negative outcomes.

“We can maybe change those trajectories for them,” she says. She also hopes some day to serve as a mentor to university students. “I didn’t know Libby [Douvan],” Carter says, “but I’ve read a lot about her.” Among the characteristics that impressed her, Carter says, was Douvan’s “dedication to mentoring—to advising the next generation of researchers.”

That kind of mentoring made all the difference in Carter’s own life. As an assistant back at the PACE Center, she wasn’t sure what her long-term goals should be. But the then director took her in hand. “She said, ‘Let’s make a plan. Let’s do this! You want to do psychology? You can do a Ph.D.!” Carter adds: “I wouldn’t be here without bumping into people. That’s what’s really been helpful in moving me forward in my research, and helping me come to the realization that I can become a professor.” Her advice to other young scholars? “Bump into people. Try to be visible.” She adds: “You never know which person you bump into is going to help you move forward.”

A benefit concert for the Douvan Fund featuring William Bolcom and Joan Morris will be held on Sunday, October 16, 2011, at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor. For more information, contact Patrick Shields, peshield [at] umich [dot] edu.

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