Ravenna M. Helson was born in 1925 and grew up in Austin, Texas. She received her B.A. and M.A. from UT Austin and went on to the University of California, Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. She completed her degree in 1952 and was offered a job at Smith College. While teaching at Smith, Ravenna met Henry Helson, a mathematician at Yale whom she married in 1954 and to whom she remained devoted until his passing in 2010. When Henry was offered a faculty position at UC Berkeley in 1955, Ravenna moved with him without a faculty position of her own. Ravenna and Henry had three children between 1956 and 1960, and Ravenna was offered a half-time appointment at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) in 1957. She was asked to take over IPAR’s project on creativity in women, and shortly thereafter, she started what would later become the Mills Longitudinal Project when she conducted a study of creativity in the women of the Mills College classes of 1958 and 1960.
Between the years of 1960 and 1980, Ravenna’s career steadily gained momentum, even as she raised three children, held a non-tenure-track position, and maintained a commitment to personality research during a very difficult time for the field of personality psychology. That her career survived through these years speaks to Ravenna’s remarkable independence, perseverance, and resiliency. It was not until 1980, when she was 55 years old, that Ravenna’s career as we know it today really took off, as she was awarded an NIMH grant to study adult development in the Mills women whom she had first studied 20 years earlier. What followed were three remarkably productive decades for Ravenna, as she, along with her many students and collaborators, developed the Mills Project into one of the premier longitudinal studies of its kind, with assessments of the women in their 20s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. The 100+ articles and chapters that have been published on the Mills Project examine how patterns of personality stability and change over time relate to social roles, socio-historical context, and critical life events. One of Ravenna’s seminal contributions was her concept of the social clock project, which she used to show how personality patterns relate to the timing of work and family role commitments (Helson, Mitchel, & Moan, 1984). Two enduring themes that emerge from Ravenna’s rich and varied body of work are (1) personality is more than “just traits” and must include a conceptualization of the whole person, and (2) personality does indeed change, and it changes in different ways for different people depending on their life experiences and circumstances. Ravenna was recognized for her substantial contributions to personality psychology with the Block Award in 2003.
Amidst her own productivity, Ravenna was always a highly dedicated and generous mentor. Indeed, one of the qualities that contributed to the continued success of the Mills Project was Ravenna’s willingness to give her students freedom to use her rich longitudinal data set to explore their own ideas, ideas she then nurtured into published articles with her trademark demanding and straightforward mentoring style. Ravenna remained productive and continued to work with students and collaborators past her formal retirement and well into her 80s, only recently leaving Berkeley to be near family and retire from professional life. As a persevering woman in a field dominated by men and as a truly original researcher of adult lives, Ravenna has made an indelible mark, on her students and on the field of personality psychology.
- What I recall most about working with Ravenna is her inexhaustible enthusiasm for research. She instilled in me a deep appreciation for the intricacy and richness of person-centered longitudinal research, all considered within broad contexts of society and culture. She is an inspiration.
- I learned an immeasurable amount during my time as Ravenna’s student. Most importantly, Ravenna taught me that studying personality requires studying real lives, in all their richness and complexity, and that quantitative and qualitative are not mutually exclusive terms. I'll never forget how she would light up when I would show her a new table of correlations to pore over, and the fun we would have discussing the story these numbers were telling us. She had a one-of-a-kind mentoring style that combined an enormous investment of time and energy in her students, total generosity with her data and her ideas, and an “old-school” way of carefully choosing words of both criticism (when necessary) and praise (when well-earned). To this day, a complement from Ravenna makes my month! I will be forever grateful for the ways that her life has shaped mine.
-Jennifer Pals Lilgendahl
- While in graduate school at Berkeley 1965-1967 I had an office next door to Ravenna at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research where we talked daily. She is the sweetest, kindest, smartest, and most creative person I have met in my career, and I remember her with unreserved affection. And she has been highly productive as a scientist.
- I first met Ravenna in 1957, when she had newly joined the staff of the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, UC Berkeley, and I was a graduate student research assistant at IPAR. Ravenna was the only woman on the staff, in a Psychology department that also had no women faculty members. So, she stood out, in many positive ways.
At that time, her research focused on creative women mathematicians. This was followed with what became her life-time focus – the study of development in women. Ravenna conducted the personality assessment of young women students at Mills College, beginning when they were 21 years old, and then were followed through the years, with subsequent assessments at age 27, age 43, age 52 and age 61. This was the first study of women’s psychological development, previous studies having focused on men only.
I renewed my friendship with Ravenna 46 years later, when I visited UC Berkeley for a semester. We had many pleasant meetings during that time, both professional, in which we discussed the Mills data, and social, when with her husband Henry, we enjoyed the local cuisine.
In all of these interactions, I remember Ravenna as unfailingly kind, thoughtful and supporting of new ideas. She was generous with her professional time and invariably tactful in her questioning. As a young graduate student I don’t think I realized how she would become a role model for me. I am well aware of that now.
- Working with Ravenna Helson is always inspiring. She has a quick, sharp wit and an encyclopedic memory, and she takes such an immense pleasure in her work, constantly crafting new ideas and projects. If only we could all have such energy and passion! One of my favorite things about Ravenna is her ability to be supportive while also being wholly honest, straightforward, and direct. You can always rely on her to tell you exactly what she thinks of your ideas -- even if she thinks they're terrible! -- which I find tremendously refreshing and encouraging. After all, how can we become better researchers if no one will tell us where we've missed the mark? Ravenna is a delightful person and a true mentor, and I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her.
- I remember Ravenna from my time as an undergrad, grad and post doc at IPSR. I never directly worked with Ravenna but she was the second reader on my undergrad thesis and I remember being so appreciative that she gave me so much thorough feedback. Over the years, I grew to know Ravenna as someone who could always cut to the heart of whatever issue was being discussed with clear and straightforward advice. I was also impressed by how much she cared about the graduate students and their mentoring. I have tried to emulate that in my own lab.
- It is often difficult to strike a balance between providing enough guidance to students and allowing them to learn on their own. Ravenna did this magnificently, and for this, I am quite grateful. She taught me, through example, how to do research with the highest integrity. I thank her for what has evolved from a mentorship to friendship over the years.