Ashley Ruba uncovers complex world of babies' emotional understanding

Conducting research with infants is no small feat, but the 2019 doctoral graduate has already made important contributions to emotions research.

Not many people can say they’ve met 1,000 babies in their lifetimes, but Ashley Ruba hit that number in five years.

Ruba, who earned a doctorate in developmental psychology in 2019, spent graduate school at UW studying how infants learn and understand emotions. Ruba found that even though babies don’t yet have the language skills of adults, they are still able to make subtle distinctions between emotions, even those as young as 10 months.

Ruba’s dissertation, “The Development of Emotion Understanding in Infancy,” received the Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Graduate School this year and was also honored by the American Psychological Association for being an outstanding contribution to developmental psychology.

Ashley Ruba stands at a podium onstage speaking to audience

Ashley Ruba giving a talk at the 2017 Cognitive Development Society (CDS) Conference.

Discovering that infants can distinguish between feelings like anger and disgust was important for the field of emotions research. Some people had theorized that infants couldn’t make these finer distinctions, because they thought language was necessary to help children construct their understanding of emotions. But just as babies are great with learning languages, they are also great at learning emotions.

“This suggests that infants are able to look at the very complicated landscape of human emotions and just through observing how people express emotions, they can start to make predictions about if a person is in this particular type of situation, what emotions are they likely to express,” Ruba said.

Research on infant emotions can also have a larger impact on understanding how emotions develop, for instance, if they are innate or if they are something that is constructed with the help of language. It’s critical for human social connections that people are able to understand each other’s emotions. That’s why this kind of research can help researchers intervene to help those with mental health disorders who might have trouble reading emotions in others.

Research just spoke to my brain; the logical scientific process made a lot of sense to me.
Ashley RubaPh.D., Developmental Psychology
Four people stand side by side against a wall

Ashley Ruba (second from left) presented at the 2019 symposium, Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Conference, alongside friends (from left) Marissa Ogren (UCLA), Jennifer Knothe (UC Merced), Tiffany Doan (University of Waterloo).

Working with a thousand infants required a lot of patience on Ruba’s part. Babies are fickle, and sometimes their responses have nothing to do with what’s being studied. For example, an infant might act differently during a study because they’re distracted by something as simple as the vibrant color of someone’s shirt.

And then, of course, some infants would much prefer to be napping, eating, or crying rather than contributing to science. Ruba learned to accept that she could work with five babies in one day and only one of them would actually be able to finish the whole study.

Ruba has been interested in how the human mind works since high school, and was especially concerned with how to help people work through trauma and other mental health challenges after one of her friends died by suicide.

At Duke University, Ruba became fascinated by child development and research after two professors tasked her with an independent project studying emotions in infants.

“Research just spoke to my brain; the logical scientific process made a lot of sense to me,” she said.

Two people stand side by side in a room

Ashley Ruba and her graduate advisor, Betty Repacholi, after Ruba’s first-year talk in May 2015.

Ruba moved to Seattle for graduate school, studying with her advisor,  Associate Professor Betty Repacholi. For four of her five years, Ruba was the only graduate student working in the lab. While this came with the independence to run her research as she wanted, it was also lonely and isolating. Still, Ruba hired research assistants to help her as she piloted tests, and, despite the workload, published five first-author papers based on her dissertation, with another still in peer review.

“I am in awe of Ashley,” Repacholi said. “She has incredible energy and motivation. Her research productivity was impressive by any measure but even more so given her other commitments.”

While at UW, Ruba earned a number of fellowships, was a teaching assistant, a tutor in the Psychology Writing Center, and became a registered yoga teacher.

But all the hard work doesn’t come without challenges. Moving to a new city and taking on a new workload impacted Ruba’s mental health, as she struggled with anxiety and depression. She found that exercise, making new friends, and seeing a therapist were critical to helping her improve.

In addition to recommending that those interested in graduate school have a passion for research, Ruba also encourages people to consider how graduate school and a career in academia might impact their mental health. But just as she found support, Ruba said there are many resources available to help people who are struggling, it’s just important to identify them for when the need arises.

Ashley Ruba and James Clark stand in front of metal W sign outdoors in purple graduation robes

Ashley Ruba and her fiancé, James (Jac) Clark, at their graduation in June 2019. Ruba and Clark met during Ruba’s first year of graduate school and they defended their dissertations within days of one another. Clark earned his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering.

Now a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ruba is studying emotional development in young children ages 3 to 4. She’s interested in a career as an academic, but is applying for grants to extend her postdoc research a bit longer.

Ruba was in the middle of piloting her first study when the pandemic changed how scientists could conduct research. To adapt to social distancing, Ruba is now using Lookit, a platform developed by MIT, where parents can participate in studies with their children over a computer rather than in-person.

It’s a big challenge for the world of human-subject research, but since Ruba’s already expertly worked with 1,000 of the most challenging of these subjects, it’s not difficult to imagine her deftly handling this one.


By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Originally Published August 4, 2020