Celebrating the Suomi Legacy

In a packed classroom at the Pyle Center, UW–Madison alumnus and Brigham Young University psychology professor J. Dee Higley, PhD’85 addressed those gathered: “All of us think of our mentors as being brilliant, but I have evidence that Steve [Suomi] was a step or two above,” he began, and thus kicked off a celebration of the scientific legacy and impact of Dr. Stephen J. Suomi at the 42nd Meeting of the American Society of Primatologists in August.

Though perhaps not a household name, anyone who has taken an Intro to Psychology course will be familiar with the rhesus monkey research of Suomi, PhD’71, which focused on the roots of temperament and behavior. As Harry Harlow’s student and successor, Suomi pioneered a new era of investigation, studying the role of genes and environment on infant development, most notably demonstrating the importance of individual differences.

At this particular meeting, seven primatologists shared how Suomi’s research had directly influenced their own, praising his commitment to so effectively conveying the translational relevance and implications of his findings in animals. “Throughout Steve’s career, he has reached out to clinicians and psychiatrists, to more clearly convey what the value of non-human animal models is; it’s moved the field forward and changed how we think about the lasting influence that early rearing has on the young infant,” said Allyson Bennett, UW–Madison psychology professor and animal program faculty director. Added UW–Madison psychology professor Christopher Coe: “The field of primatology crosses many disciplines and no one has done a better job than Steve, being an emissary of its relevance to social scientists, economists and policy makers. He became our best spokesperson from primate science to the child development research community.”

In addition to using his data to benefit humans, Bennett shared, Suomi also used it to inform policy for better animal welfare, advocating for practices that would benefit animals’ well-being. In the late ‘80s, Suomi and colleague Melinda Novak, PhD ‘73, demonstrated the importance of rearing and housing conditions. It laid the groundwork for the emphasis today in providing more enrichment and stimulation in the day-to-day care of animals living in zoos and research facilities. Even before the passage of some congressional acts to promote the welfare of animals, Suomi had advocated for the idea of incorporating the perspective of ethics into the care and study of animals being used in scientific projects.

While his research accomplishments certainly warranted accolades, the presenters were just as quick to talk about Suomi’s character.

“This relationship has been a friendship as well as a collaboration — 113 publications together. I don’t know many people who have worked with their mentor that long and it’s because he didn’t always have to take the credit, allowing students and more junior colleagues to shine. He was more interested in the data than personal advancement,” said Higley.

Each presenter echoed Higley’s words. Whether by providing opportunities and environments for students to pursue novel approaches to research at the UW or by making significant contributions to our understanding of how the interactions between genes and physical and social environments affect individual development at the National Institutes of Health, Steve Suomi solidified his legacy as a giant in the field of epigenetics and primate ethology.