2013 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Sari van Anders

University of Michigan

What is the focus of your award-winning research?
My social neuroendocrinology research program focuses on hormones and socially intimate behavioral contexts alongside gender/sex and sexual diversity. I am interested in the social modulation of testosterone (T) via sexuality, partnering, and nurturance, as well as bidirectional links with phenomena like sexual desire and orgasm. I ask hormonal questions that have evolutionary theory and social construction in their answers, and that have implications for health and immunity. I also ask phenomenological questions about sexuality, intimacy, gender/sex, and T itself.

Much of my work uses the Steroid/Peptide Theory of Social Bonds, a theoretical framework we developed to delineate the utility of T and other hormones for disentangling the evolved systems that jointly and separately contribute to contextualized intimacies. My work puts forward a biological model of human work that is non-biologically deterministic, socially situated, and rooted in feminist science. It sidesteps nature/nurture debates and demonstrates the malleability of biologies. In a more humanistic layer to my research program, I study hormones as sociocultural agents.

I use interdisciplinary methods like hormone assays, experiments, questionnaires, group differences, correlations, content analysis, and interviews; our lab is focused on creative, non-invasive, feminist, and enfranchising methodologies. We have exciting cross-disciplinary collaborators from nursing/midwifery, theater, immunology and infectious diseases, sexual health medicine, biological anthropology, social work, and beyond.

How did you develop an interest in this area?
I was long interested in the ‘slash’ between gender/sex and, because social neuroscience wasn’t on my horizon and a biological foundation seemed to proffer more authority to explore outside of home territory than social training would, I pursued biopsychology. I became interested in hormones because they were seemingly so deeply implicated in gender/sex; I then became interested in sexuality because it was so deeply implicated in hormones (this sounds like a pyramid scheme!). Perhaps ironically, at first I couldn’t see how to mesh my interests in feminist science studies and socialization with my interests in hormones, gender/sex, and sexuality. A lot of reading, supportive colleagues, time, and my own missteps and realizations provided a positive feedback loop between these domains, or perhaps a sort of osmotic pressure that helped move ideas from these two domains into one research program. Now, I wonder how I could ever not have seen the exciting richness and breathtaking potential of this unified approach.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
I have been extremely fortunate to have ‘spot-mentoring’, where people (who might not know I think of them as mentors!) have been incredibly generous with answering questions, providing guidance, and supporting my work. This has been invaluable because it would be unrealistic to expect mentorship at the junction of all my interdisciplinary foci. Here at Michigan, Abby Stewart and Jill Becker have really been amazingly gracious sources of sustained navigational support and there are others (truly too many to name) in our incredible Psychology Department, Women’s Studies Department (where I am jointly appointed), and many other locations on campus who have provided sustained or spot mentoring at critical junctures. I have gained so much from collaborators and my PhD supervisor, Neil Watson — both mentorship and influence; it would be hard to articulate how paradigm-shifting their contributions have been here.

A number of scholars have deeply affected both the way I think about specific topics and the way I do scholarship, and/or shared important insights: from behavioral neuroendocrinology (e.g., Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, Melissa Hines, Ellen Ketterson, Rui Oliveira, Kim Wallen, John Wingfield), gender/sexuality (e.g., Meredith Chivers, Lisa Diamond, Leonore Tiefer, Suzanne Kessler), feminist science (e.g., Anne Fausto-Sterling, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Helen Longino, Elisabeth Lloyd). I wish I could provide a longer list of mentors and influences. Finally, my partner now knows more about the junction of feminist bioscience, sexuality research, and social neuroendocrinology than any physicist should have to know, and continues to be my main sounding board.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
I once read another scientist’s attribution of their success and was struck by the similarity of experience. Namely, holding two specific beliefs that are completely contradictory is strangely compelling and motivating: 1) the overwhelming belief that one truly has no valuable insights or hope of succeeding, and 2) the sincere faith that one’s contributions are valuable and exceptionally right. And by ‘one’ I mean ‘me’. I will leave the obvious explanations to our social-cognitive colleagues.

Also, I read feminist work on gender, science, and academia very early, and this (often truly depressing) body of work helped crystallize the social situatedness of science in a formational way. Knowing that social locations affected judgments was a push because I knew that, as a woman, I might be held to a different set of standards. This literature ended up being a very pragmatic (sur)realist map to navigate by, as well as an incitement to consider how I wanted science to be practiced (by me; in general).

Also, and I’m far from unique in this, I just honestly love the things I get to think about all day, and would rather get closer to a truth than somehow be innately right. This investment in a situated truth means that my lab members contribute diverse perspectives to vibrant research debates, and any successes we have owe a large debt to this.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
I found this award incredibly meaningful on personal and professional levels for a number of reasons. First, many scholars including myself try to avoid relying on external recognitions to validate our work because these can be infrequent at best; I was not ready for how sincerely validating this award actually felt, especially when I thought about the past recipients, many of whom I have long admired. Second, this very exciting recognition of my scholarship paradoxically has been bittersweet as I can’t seem to help thinking on the would-have-been, should-have-been, and could-have-been scholars whose work pushed at disciplinary boundaries that pushed back. Finally, doing work that is seen to be definitionally oxymoronic — feminist science — certainly inheres challenges, especially in conjunction with doing work on intimacy and sexuality (which is often seen as illegitimate or idiosyncratic). So, it feels like an exciting time for feminist science, as well as sexuality research, and psychological approaches that, at their core, expand our notions of what it means to create knowledge in ways that honor the interconnectedness and richness of human complexity.