Makeba Wilbourn, A Professor Who Thinks About Thinking

Former tuxedo fitter now studies language development in infants

Makeba Wilbourn with her daughter, Justice, at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Makeba Wilbourn with her daughter, Justice, at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Name: Makeba Wilbourn

Position: Assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience

Years at Duke:

What I do at Duke is: I conduct research on infant cognition and language development, as well as teach classes about developmental psychology, the role of race in culture and development and a theory of development class at the graduate level.

If someone wanted to start a conversation with me, they should ask me about: Anything about research, my kids or pop culture. I love having interactions with people that get me thinking, whether it's a 3-year old, a 23-year old or a 63-year old. I like hearing other people's perspectives.

If I had $5 million, I would: I can't think of what I wouldn't do with it. Initially, I would do something that would pay it forward. I would take out part of that money to make me feel good about my contribution to society and making things better for everyone. I would still want to work too. I love my job. I would travel and save for college for my kids and all those typical things. Still, there'd have to be something substantial I could do to make the life of someone or some group of people better.

My first-ever job was: I worked at a tuxedo shop as a tuxedo fitter. I was in high school and thought it'd be a great way to meet cute boys, but they all had dates. A month or two, in I realized it wasn't the best route because everyone was going to a prom or wedding or was just too old. But then I got all my friends jobs at the shop, and we had a great time together.

What I love about Duke is: Over the last three years I have really come to love the students. They're really eclectic and diverse. They're so inspiring because they want to go out and change the world, and I'm sure they will. 

When I'm not at work, I like to: I enjoy time with my kids. I like sports, so I like going to sporting events. We spend a lot of time going to volleyball, basketball and baseball games. Even when we're not at Duke for work, we're often at Duke. It's one of my favorite guilty pleasures - taking my kids to a women's basketball game or a baseball game and hooting and hollering with them.

If I could have one superpower, it would be: I'd love to read people's minds. It'd be so fabulous to have that insight because I'm so intrigued by how people think and what they do. I spend my life trying to figure out how babies think and learn, so it would cut out a lot of work too.

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