2011 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Wendy B. Mendes

University of California, San Francisco

Mendes_WendyWhat is the focus of your award-winning research?

The research in my lab focuses on embodiment or how the mind and body reciprocally influence each other. Specifically, we examine how emotions, stress, and motivation are experienced in the brain and body and how those bodily changes influence behavior and decision-making. For example, in some research we explore how inter-racial anxiety is manifested in physiological responses and how those responses influence treatment and behavior towards outgroup members. Other studies have examined how stress can be differentiated into “good” and “bad” stress physiology and how “good” stress can positively influence judgment and decision making. We also take seriously the idea of individual differences in the neurobiological milieu which can buffer stress reactions and influence complicated behavior, like creativity. In most of my studies we are attempting to bridge mental states, neurobiological changes and behavior. Of course some of the most interesting findings are when we don’t observe the expected relationships among these factors because of chronic stress, physical disease, or aging.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

My interests in bridging these areas began in graduate school working in a social psychophysiology lab, and continued during my post-doc years at UC San Francisco in psychoneuroendocrinology, then sharpened during my six years as faculty at Harvard with exposure to related areas in neuroscience, public health, and molecular and cell biology, and is influenced in my new position at the medical school at UC San Francisco which provides interactions with psychiatrists, medical researchers, and bench scientists.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

There have been two primary sources of inspiration. The first was my graduate training at University of California, Santa Barbara that provided a solid foundation of breadth and depth of social psychology. Most notably, my graduate adviser, Jim Blascovich, University of California, Santa Barbara, is extraordinarily creative and he made me think of social psychology as theater – we created immersive, vivid, and real situations in a lab that engendered strong emotional and stressful reactions. Brenda Major, University of California, Santa Barbara, was also instrumental in a different, but equally important, way and that was demonstrating how to think about theory in clear conceptual and testable models. The second source of inspiration was at Harvard. Social psychologists like Mahzarin Banaji, Dan Wegner, Richard Hackman, Jason Mitchell and Dan Gilbert, and others outside of social psychology like Lisa Feldman Barrett (now at Northeastern University), Randy Buckner, Liz Spelke, Matt Nock, and Jill Hooley, all contributed in large and small ways to how I approach psychological science, in particular, and science, more broadly. There is a style of thinking and approach to research at Harvard that has profoundly shaped how I develop research ideas. The thinking is integrative not just within psychology but beyond psychology with most of the faculty collaborating with people from other departments like linguistics, public health, sociology, philosophy, economics, and molecular and cell biology. Psychology became larger to me during my time at Harvard and though the scope of psychology seemed humbling, it also inspired me to learn and borrow from other disciplines including other social sciences, as well as humanities and life sciences.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

Clearly from the people I just listed I have been extraordinarily lucky to be surrounded by some of the greatest minds in psychology. I have benefited from long discussions with them and just being around them and paying attention to how they think about ideas. In addition there are two other factors (one situational and the other personal) that I think were especially important. The first is that I have terrific graduate students and post-docs who work with me and take the ideas we pursue seriously. Colleagues are great, but the people who inhabit your lab are the ones who animate the ideas and make the ideas come alive in studies. The second factor is a combination of personal factors: I read broadly, I write every day, I try to be helpful to other researchers, and I pay attention to what my data are telling me and try not to get so wedded to my ideas that it blinds me to what the data are trying to tell me.

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

This award is especially meaningful to me because it is named in honor of one of my academic heroes: Janet Spence. She was conducting interdisciplinary and translational research years before there was a global call for this type of work or even a name for bridging areas and applying theory and empirical data to important societal concerns. I am in awe of Dr. Spence’s career which from an outsider’s perspective seems to consist of seamless transitions from many different areas of expertise from individual differences to motivation to gender identity, and in each of these areas she made tremendous gains in our understanding. I can only hope to have a career half as impactful and far-reaching as hers.