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Congratulations to the 2010 Janet Taylor Spence Award Recipients

The APS Board of Directors is pleased to announce the 2010 recipients of the APS Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions, in recognition of the significant impact their work is having in the field of psychological science. The award recognizes the creativity and innovative work of promising scientists who represent the bright future ahead for psychological science. It places these recipients among the brightest minds in our field. This inaugural class of Spence awardees sets an impressively high standard for the award in years to come.

This award is a fitting tribute to its namesake, Janet Taylor Spence, the first elected President of APS. Whether in the field or the laboratory, Spence’s distinguished career is characterized both by its empirical rigor and its innovative theoretical approach. Her willingness to question the accepted led her to develop assessment techniques that continue to be used widely.

The first awards will be conferred by Spence at the APS 22nd Annual Convention in Boston in May. For more details on the convention, visit http://www.psychologicalscience.org/convention.

Elizabeth A. Kensinger
Boston College

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

My research focuses on how the emotional content of information affects the way we remember it. My laboratory members and I are interested in understanding how emotion changes the subjective phenomenology of memory, the objective accuracy of memory, and the brain mechanisms that support memory. We examine these effects of emotion on young adults’ memories and investigate how the influences of emotion change across the adult lifespan.

We strive to integrate findings from behavioral and neural levels of analysis and from controlled laboratory experiments as well as assessments of memory for “real life” emotional experiences. Our recent studies have measured the accuracy with which people can remember the identity and location of objects such as snakes or spiders within a scene, have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the neural response elicited as Boston College hockey players recall positive and negative events from the hockey season, and have assessed how accurately adults of all ages can remember the 2008 Presidential race.

Our research has revealed that emotional valence (whether an experience is pleasant or unpleasant) influences every phase of memory. Our research also has demonstrated that some of these effects of valence are more affected by aging than others. For example, aging affects how new emotional events are integrated with former ones: Older adults are more likely than younger adults to link a new emotional experience — and particularly a positive one — to past decisions and life events.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

I often attribute my interest in emotion, memory, and aging to interactions that I had with Sue Corkin and with the Alzheimer’s patients we were testing during my initial years of graduate school at MIT. The patients’ caregivers often told me that they were surprised that their loved ones could not remember personally important, highly emotional events. These anecdotes led me to question why we expect emotional memories to be vivid and to wonder whether emotional memories were particularly disrupted by Alzheimer’s disease. These interests lay dormant for a while, but as I talked with Sue about my interests, read more about emotion processing, and learned more about medial temporal-lobe function, I began to see how the study of emotional memory could allow us to understand how different regions of the medial temporal-lobe interact with one another and how those interactions might change the subjective qualities and objective details of a memory.

Although this is the most direct answer, a second and more complete answer would probably start with my first science fair project in the fourth grade…but I will fast-forward to college.

The first factor was the excellent courses that I took at the start of my undergraduate education. In my Freshman fall, I took an elective called “Vision and the Brain,” taught by Ken Nakayama and Patrick Cavanaugh, which ignited my interest in the field of cognitive psychology. Then, I enrolled in Dan Schacter’s course on memory and cognition. By the end of that course, I knew I wanted to major in psychology and to learn more about human memory.

A second factor was my early introduction to research on memory and cognitive aging. I joined Dan Schacter’s laboratory soon after taking his course. Under the guidance of Wilma Koutstaal and Dan, I learned good study design and was taught an array of data analysis techniques, and in the process I became fascinated by the topic of false memory. I was also fortunate to receive a summer internship at the Gerontology Research Center at the National Institute on Aging, working under the tutelage of Robert McCrae and Sue Resnick.

Finally, a third factor was having the good fortune to be at Harvard while Matt Lieberman and Kevin Ochsner were developing their ideas about social cognitive neuroscience. I enrolled in a seminar on Social Cognitive Neuroscience taught by Dan Gilbert and Kevin Ochsner, and that course sparked my interest in thinking about cognitive processes in a broader socio-emotional context. I believe these initial experiences allowed me to have an appreciation for all that could be learned by examining the interactions among emotion, memory, and aging.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

I have benefited from interactions with a large number of researchers, but there are three individuals who stand out for their mentorship: Dan Schacter, Sue Corkin, and Anthony Wagner.

Beyond their contributions to my training, they have been mentors in the truest sense, always taking the time to share their wisdom and to provide advice and constructive feedback. Now that I have the honor of being a mentor to students of my own, I strive to reach the high bar that Dan, Sue, and Anthony set.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

My undergraduate years provided me with a strong research foundation on which I was able to build during graduate school. By the time that I received my PhD, I had familiarity with fMRI and with neuropsychological approaches, which meant that I entered my postdoctoral fellowship, with sufficient tools in my toolbox to allow me to test a large array of hypotheses. During my fellowship I was able to enhance my comfort with those different tools and to become better at integrating the knowledge gained from each of them.

A key component to my success has also come from my interactions with so many fellow scientists who have been willing to share their expertise with me. Although such interactions are important for any researcher, I think they are particularly critical when research spans across traditional areas of inquiry. My research could not build upon findings in the literature on emotion processing, human memory, and cognitive aging were it not for a long list of mentors and collaborators who have helped me think about the best ways to effectively integrate findings from those areas. I trained in dynamic laboratory environments, filled with collaborative and collegial individuals who were excited to share their knowledge. Now, I am privileged to be in a department with colleagues who share an enthusiasm for research and who enjoy sharing ideas and insights. Finally, I am lucky to have the phenomenal Boston area research community at my fingertips, with a plethora of talks to attend and many experts with whom I can consult.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

As a woman in science, I am delighted to receive this award in its inaugural year and to be presented the award by Janet Spence herself, who is a role model for all scientists and for female scientists in particular.

I am also pleased that this award provides me with an opportunity to acknowledge my mentors and to thank my colleagues at Boston College, my laboratory members, and my collaborators. Although this award is given to individuals, the “transformative contributions” it honors have emerged from fruitful collaborations. My debt of gratitude is owed to a group of individuals too long to list: people with whom I have had lengthy conversations about theory and analysis, brainstormed new study designs, acquired and analyzed data, prepared manuscripts, and presented findings at scientific meetings. I view this award as a wonderful recognition of how productive (and fun!) scientific research can be when that collaborative spirit is alive.

James Coan

University of Virginia

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

The primary focus of my research has become the social regulation of emotion, with a strong emphasis on the neural systems that both affect and are affected by social relationships. I am particularly interested in how humans and other social animals utilize emotional behavior (facial expressions, proximity, touch, verbal communication) to regulate emotion in themselves and each other. Humans are powerful self-regulators, but self-regulation is an effortful, costly, largely prefrontally mediated process. Social forms of emotion regulation are often more “bottom-up,” in the sense that they are largely subcortical and automatic. I’ve come to think that people essentially “contract out” emotion regulation effort to their social networks for the purpose of conserving neural resources, not least those of the prefrontal cortex that can be used to solve other kinds of problems. In fact, I think this is the baseline or default human strategy for emotion regulation. I am calling this perspective “social baseline theory.”

How did you develop an interest in this area?

Many years ago, I worked with John Gottman at the University of Washington to identify emotional behaviors between romantic partners that held consequences for how their relationships ended up. Among many other things, we observed that some couples expertly use moments of positive affect as a regulatory mechanism to soothe each other even during moments of conflict. Other couples are not so good at this, and the degree to which couples can do this effectively holds consequences for their health and well being, as well as for the duration of their relationships. This led to interests in the social regulation of emotion as a broad, normative phenomenon but also as an expression of individual differences in both self-regulation and social regulation receptivity. An overriding interest in neural mechanisms underlying each of these processes led me to the study of emotion, emotion regulation, and the brain, first with John Allen at the University of Arizona and later with Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. In general, I am fascinated by the degree to which we are designed to think about and experience our lives in terms of the relationships we inhabit.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

Overwhelmingly, my biggest and most direct influences have been John Allen and John Gottman, both of whom have been unaccountably generous with me over the years. But I’ve also been lucky enough to work with people like Lee Sechrest, Beth Loftus, and Richie Davidson, each of whom influenced me powerfully in their own ways. I’ve been enriched by the work of Bob Levenson, John Cacioppo, James Gross, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Phil Shaver, and Jerry Clore. And it’s hard to overstate how much I’ve learned from my brilliant peers, both during and after graduate school. These are folks like Hal Movius, Pat and Kathy McKnight, Shelley Kasle, Lis Nielsen, Jess Payne, and Dave Sbarra. I am in awe of every one of them.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

I think the biggest advantage I’ve had is my diversity of training. John Gottman taught me about microanalytic behavior coding, and encouraged me to view emotions as processes that unfold over time and often exist in a kind of virtual space between people as opposed to only between a single individual’s ears. John Allen trained me to acquire and analyze psychophysiological data, and he’s just about the best there is at that. But John also taught me that basic methodological questions form the foundation of any psychophysiological measure’s ability to effectively inform psychological theory. He is absolutely dedicated to this perspective, and he really pushed me to think carefully about what the psychophysiological measures we used together (primarily frontal EEG asymmetry) meant, given the contexts within which those data were acquired. These were lessons Richie Davidson would help me expand upon later. In the midst of all this, I worked with Lee Sechrest on a number of interesting projects entirely unrelated to emotion and the brain, which exposed me to design and data analytic perspectives I may never have encountered otherwise. From Lee, I learned basic measurement theory and methodology, as well as an invaluable perspective on research that is hard to put into words but that amounts, I think, to approaching science with a simultaneous mixture of economy, openness, and play. To these factors, I would add that I have been very, very lucky.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Personally, I’m mainly astonished and deeply grateful. So many of my peers — not least the other recipients of this award — have accomplished so much that my mind reels just thinking about it. To be recognized in this way, in the midst of such company, is humbling in the extreme. Professionally, I’m very happy that I and my collaborators have been given this opportunity to highlight the work we are doing, and I feel more than ever that we have much more work to do.

Michael J. Frank
Brown University

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

I study the neural and computational mechanisms of simple forms of learning and decision making, and how these mechanisms also contribute to higher level cognitive functions including working memory and inhibitory control. This theoretical work is applied to develop an understanding of the mechanisms leading to cognitive deficits in brain disorders, with a particular focus on Parkinson’s disease. We test implications of the models in experiments that manipulate medication and deep brain stimulation status. We also apply genetic and electrophysiological analysis (EEG) to understand the neural basis of individual differences in cognition using the same theoretical framework. Much of our work has provided theoretical and empirical analysis of overlapping mechanisms associated with reinforcement learning (“Go” and “NoGo” learning), working memory updating, and cognitive control induced by decision conflict.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

The basal ganglia have been well studied in the context of motor control, but their role in cognitive function has been increasingly appreciated over the last 20 years. I was initially captivated by the strikingly similar anatomy from motor to cognitive circuits, which are largely preserved across species, and I wondered whether a core computational function could be attributed to the basal ganglia across these domains. A particularly influential set of studies by Roshan Cools and colleagues showed that although dopamine medications in Parkinson’s improved performance in some tasks, they caused deficits in others. I found these data intriguing and set out to develop a computational account of the data and to test and refine it with experiments of my own. The majority of my research program grew out of this initial endeavor.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

Randy O’Reilly (PhD mentor), Tim Curran (postdoc mentor), Jonathan Cohen, Peter Dayan, Trevor Robbins, Daniel Weinberger, and Roshan Cools all played instrumental roles in shaping my thinking about cognitive, neuroscientific, computational, clinical, and genetic issues. None of my work would be possible without these, and many other, leaders in the field.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

I study a brain system that is implicated in several aspects of motivation and cognition — the disruption of which, in one form or another, can explain aspects of cognitive dysfunction. I’ve hugely benefited from the skills and perspective offered by collaborators having complementary expertise across multiple levels of analysis, from the most basic neuroscientific and genetic issues to clinical implications. And, I’m captivated by the research — motivation goes a long way.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

The Go learner in me is reinforced, and the conflict monitor is motivated to pursue other accounts of the data.

David Amodio

New York University

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

My research examines the psychological and neural mechanisms of intergroup relations and self-regulation. One line of work examines the sources of intergroup bias — how are different forms of bias learned, how are they expressed in behavior, and how might they be extinguished? My research applies a memory systems framework to understand the different characteristics of implicit memory processes that underlie affective and cognitive forms of intergroup bias.

My other major line of work focuses on mechanisms of self-regulation — how do people respond without bias in their social behaviors? Using neuroscience models along with classic theories of motivation and social cognition, I’ve tried to distinguish mechanisms of control that underlie this process. So far, this work has helped us understand why regulation sometimes fails, why some people are better regulators than others, and why extrinsic social goals are more difficult to attain than intrinsic goals. By considering the stress-related neurochemical effects on neural structures involved in self-regulation, this work also sheds light on how anxiety facilitates some forms of regulation but impairs others.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

I’ve always been concerned with issues of social justice and fairness, and I’ve always been interested in how the mind works. It wasn’t until I took courses in social and cognitive psychology as an undergraduate that I realized I could combine these interests. And when I discovered the social cognition literature on stereotyping and prejudice, I was hooked.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I wanted to understand the distinct roles of affect and cognition in implicit bias, especially as they related to different underlying memory systems. But when it became clear that conventional social cognition approaches were limited in addressing these questions, my advisor, Patricia Devine, encouraged me to consider neuroscience approaches. Following her advice, I delved into neuroscience research on emotion and fear conditioning and joined the Emotions training program under the direction of Richard Davidson. There, I learned much more about neuroscience and links between emotion and biological processes. At the same time, Eddie Harmon-Jones joined the UW faculty, and I began to work with him to learn psychophysiological methods, which we then used to test our ideas on the role of fear conditioning in implicit affective bias. With our questions guiding us, the integration of social psychology and neuroscience seemed natural. This set the stage for most of the work I’ve done since.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

I have been fortunate to have many great mentors in psychology, beginning with Colleen Kelley (undergraduate) and Carolin Showers (1st-year PhD). My graduate school advisors, Patricia Devine and Eddie Harmon-Jones, were my primary and most influential mentors. They emphasized a thoughtful, principled, and programmatic approach to science. I was also strongly influenced by the Emotion Training Program at UW-Madison and the broader community of researchers there. As a postdoc at UCLA, my sponsors were Shelley Taylor and Matt Lieberman. They taught me about “big” science that depends on interdisciplinary collaborations. While at UCLA, I also benefitted from the advice and support of Cindy Yee Bradbury and Jim Sidanius. In recent years, my senior colleagues/friends at NYU (too many to list) have mentored me while I’ve learned the ropes of being an assistant professor.

Regarding more distal influences, I really admire scientists who were skilled at capturing the essence of enduring psychological questions, such as Gordon Allport and Jerome Bruner, as well as the early trailblazers in social neuroscience like John Cacioppo and Shelley Taylor. I am also increasingly influenced by philosophers and methodologists who have thought carefully about issues of scientific inference in psychology. These issues are especially critical when one’s science crosses levels of analysis, as in social and cognitive neuroscience.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

I’ve had several important mentors who have invested an awful lot of time and effort into training me. This is certainly a major factor. But this isn’t necessarily unique. I was also in the right place at the right time. In the mid-to-late 90s, I was testing basic social cognitive mechanisms with Trish Devine, studying psychophysiological approaches to emotion and motivation with Eddie Harmon-Jones, and learning cognitive and affective neuroscience from Richie Davidson. It was a unique milieu that that made the integration of social psychology and neuroscience in my work seem obvious and natural.

Beyond training and timing, a focus on one’s core theoretical questions, and a willingness to follow them wherever they take you, has been key, along with persistence and a thick skin. These qualities aren’t unique to me, but I think they have been critical for whatever success I’ve had.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Winning this award is humbling, because it reminds me of the many amazing early career researchers in the field today. They are a constant source of inspiration and excitement. Professionally, the award is a major source of encouragement — it’s good to know that my work might be helping to advance the field that I care so much about.

Jason Mitchell

Harvard University

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

Over the past several years, our work has focused on the question of how humans understand other minds. Social behavior depends critically on an ability to make rapid and accurate sense of the mental states of others ¾ often on the basis of limited clues about the thoughts, feelings, and dispositions they comprise. Understanding how humans meet these challenges has long been the central goal of social psychology. In the past 15 years, researchers have begun to address these questions in fundamentally new ways, by bringing to bear empirical techniques and conceptual advances from the neurosciences to inform a new understanding of the social mind. As part of this budding enterprise of “social neuroscience,” the main thrust of our research employs functional neuroimaging to examine the cognitive processes that support human social capacities.

This work has helped reveal two main insights about the nature of social cognition: first, that social thought is distinct from other forms of cognition and, second, that one way to understand the minds of others is by simulated reference to one’s own mental states.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

My undergraduate advisor was Mahzarin Banaji, a social psychologist with a strong interest in cognition. My graduate advisor was Dan Schacter, a cognitive neuroscientist. I always think of my interest in social neuroscience as their intellectual love child.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

Mahzarin Banaji, Neil Macrae, Dan Schacter, Dan Gilbert, Todd Heatherton, Lila Davachi, and Anthony Wagner.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

I’ve never run the control experiment to find out. My guess is that I was just lucky enough to work with some of the best researchers in both social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Personally, the Spence Award is a great honor, and I’m thrilled to be in the company of such amazing researchers.

Observer Vol.23, No.4 April, 2010

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