Rutgers professor Jay Rosenblatt receives international award

December 05, 2007

Rutgers University Emeritus Professor Jay S. Rosenblatt, groundbreaking researcher in the fields of parental behavior and parent-young relationship, recently was presented with the Senior Investigator Award from the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology (ISDP.

Rosenblatt, a resident of Teaneck, N.J., is credited with establishing the theoretical framework for the study of maternal behavior in animals. He also was among the first researchers to reveal that learning takes place early in life in young mammals, within the first few days, and to uncover the hormonal basis for maternal behavior.

Included among his other awards and honors, Rosenblatt is the recipient of the Daniel S. Lehrman Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Behavioral Neuroendocrinology. Lehrman was a founder, and Rosenblatt was director, of the former Institute of Animal Behavior (IAB) at Rutgers-Newark. The IAB is recognized for having trained numerous researchers who have gone on to become leaders in the field. Rosenblatt is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the recipient of honorary doctoral degrees from Göteborg University, Sweden, and the National University of Education at a Distance, Madrid.

In recognition of the strength of Rosenblatt's contributions to the study of animal behavior, in Jan. 2007 the journal Developmental Psychobiology published a special issue in his honor. Writing for that issue, Alison S. Fleming, a former student and currently psychology professor at the University of Toronto, noted: "We are celebrating a person who, in the modern period, starting around 1960, virtually created a field of inquiry, the study of the psychobiology of mammalian maternal behavior."

Rosenblatt's first major breakthrough took place during the 1950s while working on kitten behavioral development as a researcher with the Department of Animal Behavior at the American Museum of Natural History. "I noticed that after I removed the kittens from their mothers to weigh them and returned them to their home cage, they stopped crying, indicating that they knew where they were. This led us to discover their ability to return to their nest in the home cage using odors deposited by the mother on the cage floor. At the same time in watching them nurse, I realized that I knew which nipple they would attach to when they reached the mother and if I knew, then they also knew. Each kitten of the litter had already learned its own preferred nipple position, and this occurred as early as day one in their lives."

The problem at the time, he explains, was that researchers were trying "to impose" learning methods upon young animals by training them to do things that were not natural to them at an early age, such as lifting a paw when a bell was rung. What he showed was that by using more natural conditions specific to the animal's age and level of experience, it could be demonstrated that learning takes place early in life.

Another of his landmark findings took place after he had joined the Rutgers-Newark faculty in 1959. Suspecting that hormones play a key role in maternal behavior, he and one of his students, Joseph Terkel, devised a method to cross-transfuse the blood of a pregnant rat, shortly after it gave birth, to a virgin rat. Within hours of receiving the transfusion, the virgin rat would start exhibiting the same maternal behaviors as the pregnant rat. From there, working with Harold Siegel, he went on to identify the specific role hormones play during pregnancy and at delivery in stimulating maternal behavior in rats. In yet another key finding, he uncovered what he described as the "behavioral synchrony" between parents and their young, showing that parental care after birth is regulated by the reciprocal behavioral interaction between parent and offspring.

"What I am most proud of, apart from the number of students who have come out of IAB to become leaders in their fields," he says, "is to have sketched out at a time when it was needed the issues in maternal behavior and behavioral development that people should be studying." Rosenblatt has authored more than 160 papers and chapters in leading scientific publications and served as editor for more than a decade of the series Advances in the Study of Behavior.

Rosenblatt served as director of the IAB from 1972 to 1989. In 1993, IAB was merged with the Rutgers-Newark Department of Psychology. He, along with other IAB faculty also was instrumental in initiating development of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers-Newark.

The Senior Investigator Award, presented to him at the ISDP annual convention in San Diego on Nov. 3, is particularly meaningful, he says, because "it comes from people who are my colleagues, from people who know me and my work, who I have worked with throughout my career."

BIOGRAPHY: As a young man, Jay S. Rosenblatt never intended on becoming a researcher. His first interest was painting, which he continued to pursue throughout the course of his career. Raised in the Bronx, he began his undergraduate studies at the College of the City of New York and then joined the Army in 1943. After being discharged in 1945, he enrolled at New York University to complete his studies. His goal was to earn a degree in the psychology of art, combining both his interest in art and human behavior. That changed, however, after he met the animal behaviorist T.C. (Theodore Christian) Schneirla at NYU, who convinced him that "to understand human behavior, you have to understand how behavior evolved, which you discover by studying animal behavior."

Six years after earning his Ph.D., Rosenblatt went on to train as a psychoanalyst at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health in New York and to establish a private practice, which he maintained for 25 years while also working as a researcher at Rutgers and continuing his painting.

"When you're doing research, you are dealing with group phenomena, and I felt I also needed contact with individual phenomena," he says. "Painting, researching and psychoanalysis, they all expressed and satisfied different things in me."

The other interests, he says, also served to influence and guide his research. Describing how he approaches research, Rosenblatt likens it painting. "Although I'm theoretical, I try not to impose my ideas. It needs to be a back and forth process. It's what I do with painting. I'll put something on the canvas and then interact back and forth with the canvas, letting it also show me things."

Rosenblatt retired from Rutgers in 2005 as the Daniel S. Lehrman Professor of Psychobiology,but continues his research in animal behavior. Currently, he is working on a project on "The evolution of parental behavior in vertebrates."

Rutgers University

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