Childhood curiosity sparks academic career for sisters

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Asking questions and probing for answers was an everyday occurrence in the house where sisters Carolyn and Cecilia Rouse, both Princeton professors, grew up.

The sisters recall a time during their childhood when they got into a debate about something and their mother, instead of supplying the answer, intervened with a suggestion: "Why don't you do an experiment and find out?"


Princeton faculty members Cecilia (left) and Carolyn Rouse enjoy using each other as sounding boards for their work in the academic world.


"That was the way our parents taught us to solve a problem," Cecilia said. "That's how we were raised."

Higher education runs in the Rouse family. Their father, Carl, has a Ph.D. in physics. Their mother, Lorraine, has master's degrees in psychology and social work. And their older brother, Forest, has a Ph.D. in high-energy physics.

"I tried not to follow in their footsteps," said Carolyn, the youngest. "But there was propaganda, brainwashing ...," she joked. And so, after spending several years making films, Carolyn decided to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Southern California. She became an assistant professor in Princeton's anthropology department in September 2000.

Cecilia joined Princeton's economics department in 1992 after earning her Ph.D. at Harvard. She became a full professor last summer.

It's great fun for the sisters, who grew up in California, to live in the same city and be on the faculty together. They especially love the fact that their children Carolyn has two, Cecilia has one are getting to know each other. Their parents, of course, are thrilled.

The benefits of working at the same university extend to their research: The sisters act as sounding boards for each other, discussing their projects and sharing advice on navigating the academic world. Cecilia, for example, sometimes jumps in to remind Carolyn when she is using anthropological terms that those in other fields may not understand.

Carolyn is preparing her first book, "Engaged Surrender: Consciousness and Empowerment in the Conversion Experience of African-American Muslim Women," for publication. The book tracks the lives of a group of African-American women in Los Angeles and explores why they feel empowered by becoming Muslim.

"People see Islam as oppressive to women," she said, mentioning the often-cited example of the hijab, the headscarf worn by women. "But there are a series of rights and responsibilities within Islam that a lot of converts feel balance the rights of men vs. the rights of women." The religion spells out the responsibilities of both parties in a marriage, for example, stipulating that men turn over their paychecks to their wives. "For African-American women who've seen a lot of divorce and a lot of families breaking up, they feel a sense of security about a man who has converted to Islam and accepted its tenets," she said.

Medical anthropology is another field of interest for Carolyn, and she is currently at work on a project about the treatment of adolescents with sickle cell disease. She is examining the structure of health care services for sickle cell patients in two cities and the way their different approaches to treating the same illness affects patient outcomes.

Before attending graduate school, Carolyn produced and directed several films. A documentary she edited, "Chicks in White Satin," which is about a lesbian wedding, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Cecilia, who mainly focuses on the economics of education, is working on a project monitoring a Florida program to increase accountability in schools. She also is starting an Education Research Section at Princeton to promote high-quality research in education through the use of randomized experiments. She is hoping the section will eventually produce an annual conference that includes superintendents and principals, a quarterly newsletter summarizing research results and a Web site to encourage secondary analyses of data.

"Many people in the education community are just flat-out opposed to randomization," said Cecilia, referring to a research approach in which children are randomly assigned into two groups, one that participates in a reform and one that does not. "I'd like for people to have a better understanding of the costs and benefits of doing randomization, of when it's appropriate and of how to make it work."

Cecilia also is considering doing a follow-up to her 2000 study of orchestras, which found that having musicians audition behind a screen significantly boosts the chances of women being selected. The follow-up would explore whether auditions using a screen lead to more turnover in orchestras, which may suggest that hearing a musician play without meeting the person leaves out important clues about whether the musician will work well with the orchestra.

While Carolyn and Cecilia often turn to each other for advice on succeeding in academia, they agree that their inspiration is their dad. "He worked in industry, but he did more research than all of us combined," Cecilia said. "He's retired, and he still gets up every morning and goes down to his home office to do his research." Carolyn, marveling at his accomplishments, added: "We're just cheap knockoffs of our dad."

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