In case there was any doubt, the future of psychological science is in good hands. Here we present exemplars of today’s young psychological scientists; researchers who, although they may not be very advanced in years, have already made great advancements in science. This is the first of a two-part series profiling some of the field’s Rising Stars.
Princeton University PhD 2002, University of California, Berkeley Area of research: Social perception https://weblamp.princeton.edu/~psych/psychology/research/kwan/index.php Publication most proud of: Kwan, V.S.Y., Bond, M.H., & Singelis, T.S. (1997). Pancultural explanations for life satisfaction: Adding relationship harmony to self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1038-1051. In this research, I proposed a culture-general model to explain both universality and cultural specificity in the relationship between self-perception and life satisfaction. This research was a part of my first-year project in graduate school and was my first publication. This great start gave me confidence in pursuing my career in psychology. What does your research focus on? My principal research interest is social perception, which I study on three levels: (a) self-perception, (b) group perception, and (c) perceptions of nonhuman animals. In the last few years, I have worked passionately on three long-standing issues. The first issue is whether self-perception is inherently biased and, if so, whether these biases are basically healthy and good for adjustment. This question has led to a protracted debate between those who believe that psychologically healthy individuals perceive themselves accurately and those who believe that it is more adaptive to have overly positive, self-enhancing illusions. My research aims to better our understanding of the value of self-enhancement. The second issue is the power of cultural contexts on everyday judgment and decision-making. Traditional models of culture suggest that cultural worldviews exert stable and enduring effects on human cognition. According to these models, people from different cultures hold distinct worldviews and, more importantly, those worldviews remain consistent in the short term. My recent research examines whether people who have predominantly been socialized and functioned in one culture sometimes adopt the cultural worldviews of a second culture. For example, I found that White Americans do not always behave according to the norms of American culture. Instead, their cognitions and behaviors are affected by their immediate cultural context. The third issue is anthropomorphism. Animal studies once pervaded the field of social psychology, but over the last few decades, attention on this topic has faded. Here I argue that animal studies still can usefully contribute to several areas of social psychology. I propose a cross-species comparative approach by comparing human-to-animal projections (anthropomorphism) to human-to-human projections (assumed similarity). My cross-species comparative approach provides a conceptual and empirical paradigm to study perceptions of animals and open a path for future research on higher-order phenomena in animals. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? I was advised to do what interests me the most. I started with self-perception because I was most interested in “myself.” Self-perception is inherently social. In 1902, James Mark Baldwin wrote, “My thought of self is…filled up with my thought of others…and my thought of others, as persons, is mainly filled up with myself.” Thus, my interests in self-perception have led me to look at the dynamic interactions among individuals across cultures and even interactions with nonhuman agents. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? During graduate school, I was very fortunate to have many great mentors. I worked on a wide range of topics including cultural psychology with Michael Bond, personality development with Ravenna Helson, methodology with David Kenny and Charles Judd, and self-perception with Bill Swann and Oliver John. These mentors all set a great example of how to be an effective psychologist. To what do you attribute your success in the science? I attribute my success to the valuable experiences of working with great mentors. Additionally, the community at Princeton has focused the research successes I have had so far. Last but not least, my experiences in different cultures prompt me to approach psychology from a broad and integrative perspective. What’s your future research agenda? I look forward to continuing my work on the perception of self, groups, and nonhuman agents across methods, contexts, and cultures. The broad goals of my research program are to advance our understanding of issues regarding the nature of social perception and to help encourage a focus on cultural influences in social psychology. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? A knack for identifying important research questions is a key to success. We can’t do this in a vacuum. Intellectual exchanges with colleagues are the most effective way to broaden your vision about doing research. Many ideas I’ve had emerged from discussions over lunch or coffee with colleagues. I suggest that young psychologists take advantage of opportunities to share their ideas with others in both formal and informal settings.
University of California, Los Angeles PhD 2005, Columbia University Area of research: Metacognition http://nkornell.bol.ucla.edu/ Publication most proud of: Kornell, N., & Bjork, R.A. (2007). The promise and perils of self- regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 219-224 Saying which article I’m most proud of is almost like saying which child I’m most proud of. I can’t do it. (At least not for articles; when it comes to kids, I only have one, and I’m as proud as can be of her.) The article that best represents my current work is, in fact, an overview of work I did with Robert Bjork examining how people study. In the article, we touch on a number of the projects that I’m currently working on. What does your research focus on? I study ways of optimizing learning. At a practical level, that means I study how students should study. More specifically, I explore basic principles of learning, such as the benefit of spacing study sessions and testing oneself, and how they relate to educational practice. I also study what students do when they study — what they think is effective, what study strategies they use, and how well they are able to monitor their learning. And, of course, I am interested in finding (and helping to remedy) disconnections between what works and what people think works. I am also interested in the similarities between humans and monkeys, in terms of both cognition and metacognition, and both of my two main lines of research with humans have a parallel in my monkey research. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? I have been fascinated by self-improvement since I was a kid. Back then, I’m sure I would have said that psychological science should be all about figuring out ways of making practicing or studying more effective (in part, because I wanted to improve my jump shot). The research I do now, on finding ways to make studying more efficient, is a natural extension of that. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? The influence of my graduate school advisors at Columbia University, primarily Janet Metcalfe and also Herbert Terrace, cannot be overstated. Lisa Son, who was in her fourth year when I started grad school, became like my academic big sister, and she’s been a constant influence ever since. By the end of graduate school, Robert Bjork, at UCLA, had become the psychologist I wanted to work with more than any other, and in the time I’ve been lucky enough to work with him, he has had a disproportionate influence on me. I’m extremely grateful to each of these people, as well as to many others who have helped me along the way. To what do you attribute your success in the science? It helps to have great collaborators and mentors. My modest success is a direct result of their help, and the fact that I’m always keen to learn from them. What’s your future research agenda? I plan to continue doing the type of research I’m involved in now. But you can’t stick with your bread and butter all of the time; when an interesting path branches off the main trail, sometimes you have to take the plunge. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? If you’re just entering grad school, wear a helmet. And if you see anyone coming, duck. (Just kidding.) One thing I have learned is, if you can’t solve a problem or truly understand an idea, try thinking about it another thousand times, because eventually you’ll probably get it, slap your forehead, and say “How utterly obvious! What was I thinking!” Along the same lines, an experiment is like a roommate — you’re going to spend a long time together, and you won’t necessarily get along — so when you have a new idea for an experiment, don’t just dive in, be patient, revise, and make sure you really like it.
Yale University PhD 2000, Indiana University Area of research: Clinical cognitive science http://pantheon.yale.edu/~tat22/lab/ Publication most proud of: Treat, T.A., McFall, R.M., Viken, R.J., & Kruschke, J.K. (2001). Using cognitive science methods to assess the role of social information processing in sexually coercive behavior. Psychological Assessment, 13, 549-565. I am most proud of the paper that I wrote several years ago in collaboration with Dick McFall, Rick Viken, and John Kruschke. This was the first paper in which we drew on the formal computational models of cognitive science to characterize clinically-relevant individual differences in component cognitive processing of complex, socially relevant stimuli. In this case, we demonstrated that men at risk of exhibiting sexual aggression toward acquaintances showed relatively greater attention to women’s physical exposure than to their affect. This attentional pattern, in turn, predicted much slower learning of an affective category structure with the same stimuli. These findings suggest the potential utility of efforts to remediate impoverished processing of women’s affective information among high-risk men, perhaps by using cognitive scientists’ learning paradigms as a novel intervention strategy. What does your research focus on? My research program in quantitative clinical-cognitive science has two primary aims: First, to apply the theoretical models, measurement paradigms, and computational models of contemporary cognitive science to facilitate understanding, assessment, and modification of the role of cognitive processing in clinical phenomena. And second, to examine and extend the generalizability of the models and methods of quantitative cognitive science to the investigation of clinically relevant individual differences in processing of complex, socially relevant stimuli. To investigate the feasibility and utility of this hybrid clinical-cognitive approach, I have deliberately pursued these aims in parallel across multiple areas of psychopathology, with a primary focus on the role of component cognitive processes in eating disorders and sexual aggression. Ultimately, my goal is to represent clinically relevant individual differences in cognitive processing within cognitive scientists’ formal computational models, such that a single model of human cognition accounts for both normative and non-normative processing and behavior. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? Altered cognitive processing has been implicated in the development and maintenance of numerous forms of psychopathology, and evidence-based treatments for these disorders frequently include a cognitive component that emphasizes the identification, considered evaluation, and modification of distorted thinking patterns. Surprisingly, however, clinical scientists have translated few of the models and methods employed in contemporary cognitive science to characterize clinically relevant individual differences in cognitive processing. Consequently, the concepts and procedures employed in contemporary cognitive therapy bear little resemblance to the constructs and methods of cognitive science, and the potential of an integrative discipline of quantitative clinical-cognitive science remains largely untapped. This relatively unexplored niche fascinated me as an undergraduate, so I leapt at the opportunity to obtain hybrid training at the conjunction of these two fields in graduate school. Ideally, adopting an integrative approach will challenge and advance our theories about cognitive influences on psychopathology, as well as suggest novel intervention strategies. For example, most current cognitively oriented treatments rely on verbally mediated techniques that emphasize the identification and modification of maladaptive thoughts and beliefs. By capitalizing on the tools of contemporary cognitive science, we may be able to develop performance-based cognitive therapeutic approaches that target specific deficits in cognitive processing. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? To what do you attribute your success in the science? I had the good fortune to obtain hybrid clinical-cognitive training at Indiana University under the mentorship of Dick McFall and Rick Viken (in clinical science) and John Kruschke and Rob Nosofsky (in cognitive science). My success as a psychological scientist is attributable directly to the receipt of exceptional integrative training from these researchers within Indiana University’s hybrid training program, the brainchild of Dick McFall. For many years, McFall has been an articulate and visionary spokesperson for what has become known as Integrative Psychological Science (IPS), an approach to the conduct and application of psychological research that draws on the best available theoretical, measurement, and analytical models across areas of psychology and other relevant fields. This perspective led McFall and his colleagues at Indiana University to develop the first NIMH-funded IPS training model, in which clinical and nonclinical students become legitimate scholars in, and significant contributors to, both clinical science and either neural, cognitive, social, or developmental science. This integrative model extends NIH’s translational model, which brings together basic behavioral scientists and clinical scientists to enrich the scientific vision and scope of NIH research, by advocating for the integration of basic and applied expertise within a single individual. Such hybrid training allows trainees to view and contribute to multiple fields from a novel vantage. What is your future research agenda? Psychological scientists have but scratched the surface of what quantitative clinical-cognitive science has to offer. Thus, I am eager to continue advancing clinical scientists’ efforts to characterize and ameliorate processing deficits associated with psychopathology, as well as quantitative cognitive scientists’ efforts to evaluate the generalizability of their process models to more complex circumstances. In the next few years, I anticipate that my efforts will focus increasingly on the adaptation and evaluation of cognitive scientists’ category-learning methods for use as potential therapeutic tools for the remediation of problematic processing. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? First and foremost, draw on the best available models and methods across areas of psychology and other relevant fields when investigating a phenomenon of interest to you. More generally, surround yourself with really smart people who challenge you. Take intellectual risks, don’t be afraid to ask questions or look stupid, and seek out critical feedback on your ideas. Oh, and enjoy yourself — it’s an exciting time to be an up-and-coming psychological scientist!
University of Chicago PhD 2002, Washington University in St. Louis Area of research: Memory http://memorylab.uchicago.edu Publication most proud of: Gallo, D. A. (2006). Associative illusions of memory. New York: Psychology Press. I had been thinking about false memory research for a little over a decade, and this book was an opportunity to synthesize all of these findings into a (hopefully) coherent story. It allowed me to pull together findings that cut across traditional research boundaries, including those between cognitive, social, neuropsychological, and neuroscientific approaches. In many ways, I view this project as the final progress report on the first stage of my career, and as a stepping-stone for an even more integrative approach to studying the mind in the future. What does your research focus on? The cognitive neuroscience of human memory. I’m interested in almost every aspect of memory research, but much of my work has explored the intersection between metacognition and memory accuracy. To take a recent example, Alzheimer’s patients have amnesia for many events, but sometimes they are unaware of these memory deficits, a metacognitive deficit called “anosognosia.” My colleagues and I found that the degree of anosognosia in patients can be negatively linked to their memory accuracy. When ability and awareness are disconnected in this way, it can wreak havoc on many psychological functions, distorting memory and one’s sense of reality. I’ve been studying these and other questions using carefully designed experimental tasks, neuropsychological measures, and functional neuroimaging. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that reality is a mental construction, that we can only know the universe through the mind’s eye. I initially thought I’d study perception, but then I took an undergraduate course on memory and realized that perception was just the tip of the iceberg for my interests. All of our understanding of the world is ultimately derived from memory, from what we have learned and experienced in our lifetime, and from the specialized brain systems that evolution has given to process this information. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? John Seamon was a wonderful undergraduate mentor, both patient and generous, and he introduced me to experimental psychology. When he suggested that I get my PhD with Henry (Roddy) Roediger it was an obvious fit. Of course, readers of the Observer are familiar with Roddy, whose columns as “The Academic Observer” give a glimpse into his style: insightful, scholarly, and engaging. I could not have asked for a better graduate mentor, and the lessons I learned from him continue to guide me. As a bonus, when I arrived at Washington University he and others were building the department into a cognitive neuroscience powerhouse, so there were many brilliant minds to learn from. From there I did a post-doc in Dan Schacter’s lab at Harvard, where I learned even more about neuroimaging and neuropsychology. Working with Dan greatly broadened the scope of the theoretical questions I had been asking. I was lucky to have all these experiences. To what do you attribute your success in the science? I figured out what I wanted to do early on, and several good mentors showed me the way. So I see myself as having a head start instead of being unusually successful. Interestingly, my wife tells me that I sometimes obsess over my work, but I don’t view myself that way. So perhaps some self-deception keeps me going, or at least a selective memory. Maybe that’s true for everyone, but by definition, we’d never know it. What’s your future research agenda? I plan to continue to study the neurocognitive basis of metacognitive awareness, as it has many practical implications. If people are unaware that their memory is in decline, they might be overconfident in their decisions, fail to seek needed medical attention, and so forth. Although we have made significant progress understanding how healthy aging and Alzheimer’s disease affect cognition, we have only begun to learn how they affect metacognition. I’m also interested in the generalizability of cognitive theories. Cognitive psychology is great for understanding general information processing mechanisms, but it often overlooks the possibility that biologically distinct systems evolved to process information for different reasons. I’ve begun to study these issues with Ian McDonough, a graduate student here in Chicago, by comparing the accuracy of memories for different types of information. Are we evolutionarily hard-wired to distort some types of memories more than others? That’s an exciting (and somewhat unnerving) possibility. The challenge is bringing these questions into the lab, but with the rise in interdisciplinary approaches such as social-cognitive-neuroscience, I think that challenge is being met. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? Read The Compleat Academic. It has great advice for starting an academic career, and I keep my copy handy. Also, once you land your dream job, try to give your students the same positive opportunities that your mentors gave you, and don’t loose sight of the big questions that drew you to the field in the first place.
Todd S. Braver
Washington University in St. Louis PhD 1997, Carnegie Mellon University Area of research: Cognitive neuroscience http://ccpweb.wustl.edu/ Publication most proud of: Braver, T.S., Cohen, J.D., Nystrom, L.E., Jonides, J., Smith, E.E. & Noll, D.C. (1997). A parametric study of prefrontal cortex involvement in human working memory. NeuroImage, 5, 49-62. Although it’s a tough thing to pick a single publication, this one does stick out in my mind because it was one of my first first-authored papers, and we spent a lot of time and effort trying to get it published in the usual high-profile outlets. Our lack of success in this effort made me worry that it would not be very widely read or influential; it is gratifying to realize that the paper has had an impact. What does your research focus on? My research focuses on cognitive control, which is the ability to self-regulate thoughts and behavior according to internal goals. Cognitive control is what enables us to make plans and then realize them, direct our attention to features of our external and internal environment, inhibit habitual but situationally inappropriate actions, develop and coordinate abstract chains of thought to reason and problem-solve in new situations, hold on to relevant information for later use, and retrieve back this stored information when needed. I am primarily interested in the neural mechanisms that support cognitive control. How do these abilities arise in the brain? What are the core components? How do they interact? To answer these questions I use a combination of methods from cognitive neuroscience, including behavioral analysis, functional brain imaging, neuropsychological studies, and computational modeling. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? I think that the innate sense of control we have over our thoughts and behavior is one of the most cherished of all human mental faculties, and is probably the core component of our higher cognitive abilities. Yet what is most challenging about studying cognitive control is the pervasive, but pernicious intuition that acts of control somehow require a “hidden controller,” which tends to take the form of an implicit, dualistic homunculus (the proverbial “little man in our head”). Thus, developing a formal, rigorous, and mechanistic answer to the question of how cognitive control arises in the mind and brain can be considered to be the “holy grail” of scientific psychology and neuroscience. I find it incredibly exciting to be contributing to this quest for understanding. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? I was extremely lucky to have many people serve as role models or mentors to me throughout many stages of my development. I guess I have psychology in my genes, since both of my parents were psychologists and professors. My father, Sanford Braver, is a social and quantitative psychologist at Arizona State University. I probably owe a lot of my interest in thought, behavior, and formal mathematical research approaches to him. To this day he serves as a ready source of career advice and guidance, as well as a sympathetic ear when I complain about the trials and tribulations of academic life. Scientifically, I have been enormously influenced by my graduate school mentor Jonathan Cohen. Jonathan is a brilliant scientist whose amazing energy, boundless creativity, unending passion, and tremendous optimism are incredibly inspiring and contagious. Moreover, Jonathan taught by example how to blend fresh, novel, and somewhat risky ideas with both theoretical depth and methodological rigor. The success I have had in my own career is due in large part to lessons learned while working with Jonathan. At Washington University, I benefit immensely from having a highly supportive group of colleagues, plus senior mentors that serve as wellsprings of knowledge and advice. These include: Jeff Zack, Kathleen McDermott, Roddy Roediger, Dave Balota, Randy Larsen, and Martha Storandt. Finally, I can’t begin to express what I owe to my wife and colleague Deanna Barch. Deanna is a fantastic research and life partner. I would never have gotten anywhere, if it weren’t for her support, encouragement, ideas, and collaboration. To what do you attribute your success in science? In large part, my success is due to the incredible support, intellectual inspiration, and guidance from the mentors and colleagues described above. I have also benefited greatly from being able to work with amazingly talented students and post-docs, including Beth Keys, Jeremy Gray, Jeremy Reynolds, Nicole Speer, Josh Brown, and Greg Burgess. In terms of the content of my research, I feel that I have emphasized the benefit of an interdisciplinary, multimethod approach to understanding cognitive control. My work is highly theoretically and mechanistically oriented, and I am not satisfied by simple answers. The brain is a highly complex, sophisticated computational engine. So understanding how control works will require theories that reveal and decompose this complexity and sophistication. I hope that this approach has resonated with others in the field. What’s your future research agenda? In the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in understanding variability in cognitive control: That the control processes engaged to perform a particular task may change according to subtle aspects of the task situation, to fluctuations in internal state (such as mood), or to stable individual differences (such as personality and intelligence). We have been trying to understand these sources of variability, and how they influence the mechanisms of cognitive control. Part of this endeavor has been to broaden the sphere of studies of cognitive control processes to investigate emotion-cognition interactions. I am particularly interested in the domain of decision-making, since I believe it is one in which emotion-cognition interactions and individual differences play a significant role, especially when considering real-world situations and societal problems (e.g., economic behaviors, gambling, addictions, etc). Another research goal is to apply what we have been learning toward enhancing cognitive control function in impaired populations. We have had preliminary success in developing a training protocol to enhance cognitive control in both older adults and schizophrenia patients. I hope to expand this work in the future to determine the brain basis of such effects, as well as their specificity, generality, and maintenance over time. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? As much as role models are an important source of learning and inspiration in an academic career, I think it is important to always stay true to yourself, in terms of strengths and weaknesses. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you want to be successful, you have to emulate the trajectory, habits, and style of your advisor, successful colleagues, or the current stars in your area. One thing I’ve realized is that there are lots of ways to be successful, and lots of different styles and patterns of strength and weakness. It’s important to trust your own instincts (but also, of course, seek out advice and guidance) as to the research approach, academic style, and way of working that feels most comfortable to you and plays best to your strengths.
University of California, Berkeley PhD 1997, New York University Area of research: Social influences on the self and identity http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~serchen1/ Publication most proud of: Chen, S., Boucher, H.C., & Tapias, M.P. (2006). The relational self revealed: Integrative conceptualization and implications for interpersonal life. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 151-179. I chose this publication because it reflects the culmination and integration of many years of thinking and research on relational aspects of the self, and because I hope that it helps to establish the relational self as a core topic of inquiry. What does your research focus on? My research focuses on social influences on the self and identity — more specifically, on how people’s close relationships and group memberships influence self-relevant processes and phenomena, including self-definition, self-evaluation, and self-regulation. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? During graduate school, I was studying how close relationships from the past often exert a variety of influences on people’s present-day social interactions. For example, past relationships shape the expectations we have for how people who we subsequently meet will treat and respond to us. In doing this research, I came to realize that I was most interested in the impact of relationships, past and present, on the self. From there, my interest grew to encompass questions related to how members of one’s social group shape the self. That other people can play such a profound — as well as lasting — role on shaping who we are is fascinating to me. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? My primary mentors in graduate school at NYU were Shelly Chaiken, Susan Andersen, and John Bargh, but I’d say the entire intellectual community at NYU at the time influenced how I think about and approach my research. Other major intellectual influences on my thinking and research include Walter Mischel and Tory Higgins. To what do you attribute your success in the science? Good training and role models plus a good amount of dedication and hard work. What’s your future research agenda? I will continue my work on social bases of the self and identity, but with increasing attention directed at the intersection between this work and questions related to the notion of authenticity. For example, do people strive for authenticity in their relationships? If so, how do they go about it and should they strive for this in the first place? What exactly does it mean to be authentic? I also have a growing interest in the meaning functions of close relationships and group memberships — that is, how our relationships and group memberships can provide us with a sense of coherence and understanding not only about ourselves, but also about the world more broadly. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? My advice to current graduate students is to try to work with multiple faculty members if possible, even if you are more passionate about the research agenda of one faculty member over another’s. Working with different people exposes you to different ways of thinking, research paradigms, mentoring styles, statistical expertise, writing styles, etc. —all of which you can draw from as you develop into an independent researcher.
Penny S. Visser
University of Chicago PhD 1998, The Ohio State University Area of research: Attitudes http://psychology.uchicago.edu/people/faculty/pvisser.shtml Publication most proud of: Visser, P.S., & Mirabile, R.R. (2004). Attitudes in the social context: The impact of social network composition on individual-level attitude strength. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 779-795. In this paper we explored the notion that the strength of an attitude depends not only on specific features of the attitude itself (for example, its accessibility, or the amount of knowledge upon which it’s based), but also on features of the social context in which the attitude is held. In particular, we examined the implications of the social networks in which people are embedded for the strength and durability of their attitudes. I like this paper for a couple of reasons. First, it’s an effort to take seriously the fact that we don’t hold our attitudes in isolation. Instead, we hold our attitudes within a rich social context, and taking into consideration features of the social context holds great promise for a richer understanding of how attitudes function. I also like the diversity of methods we employed. Some of our studies were experimental — we created social networks in the laboratory, manipulated particular features of the networks, and assessed the impact on attitude strength. Other studies were correlational — we measured features of people’s actual social networks and examined the associations between these network features and attitude strength. These very different methodologies converged on the finding that people who are embedded within networks made up of like-minded others are more resistant to attitude change when they encounter a persuasive message than are those who are situated within attitudinally diverse social networks. Thus, attitudinally congruent networks seem to socially “cement” our attitudes, rendering those attitudes less vulnerable to change. What does your research focus on? I am primarily interested in attitudes. These are our general, relatively enduring evaluations of the things around us — the products we purchase, the political leaders we elect, the policies they enact, and all kinds of other objects. Attitudes are notoriously powerful. They spring to mind instantly and effortlessly when we encounter an attitude object, and once activated, they powerfully shape our experiences — they guide our thoughts, bias our judgments, and color our interpretations of events. Attitudes also motivate and guide our behavior, inspiring us to approach objects that we like and avoid objects that we dislike. So, in a really fundamental way, our attitudes shape our interactions with the world around us. But of course, not all attitudes exert such profound effects on thought and behavior. In fact, some attitudes are largely inconsequential, with no discernable impact on thought or action. So this raises all kinds of interesting questions that lie at the heart of my research. Why is it that some attitudes are these incredibly powerful forces in our lives, and others seem to have no impact at all? What is it about an attitude that determines its strength, and what are the particular ways in which attitude strength manifests itself? And perhaps most interesting to me these days, how does the social context in which an attitude is held come into play? How is the strength of our attitudes influenced by the social networks in which we’re embedded, for example, or by the social roles that we occupy? What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? I’ve always had a personal interest in politics, and my focus on attitudes and attitude strength really grew out of this interest. Here’s a domain where you see huge variability in the strength with which people hold their attitudes. There are people who hold their political views with such conviction that they will go to tremendous lengths and endure great personal sacrifices to express them. And yet there are other people who are unwilling to walk down the block to cast a ballot expressing their preferences on Election Day. I became very interested in understanding the sources of this great divide. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? Well the first was David Bernstein, a professor at Grand Valley State University, where I was an undergraduate. It is not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be in academia if not for his influence. In graduate school, really all of the faculty at Ohio State were influential in one way or another. Certainly Jon Krosnick, who was my primary advisor — I learned a tremendous amount from him. Phil Tetlock was also an important influence in graduate school. To what do you attribute your success in the science? If social psychology has taught me anything it’s to look to the situation when trying to understand an outcome, and that’s certainly the best place to start in this case. I couldn’t have asked for a richer, more stimulating graduate training program than Ohio State. Since graduate school I’ve had the good fortune of being surrounded by terrific colleagues, first at Princeton and now at the University of Chicago. Chicago, in particular, has proven to be a wonderfully fertile context in which to do research. There is a long tradition of boundary-crossing debate and intellectual engagement, and that tradition is lived out in very real ways every day. I interact regularly with colleagues from disparate domains — we collaborate, we co-teach classes together, we participate in interdisciplinary workshops, we attend various speakers series organized around overlapping areas of interest. It’s a remarkably vibrant, stimulating environment. What’s your future research agenda? There are lots of questions about attitudes and attitude strength that we will continue to pursue in my lab, but I’m also really excited about a new project that takes me in a somewhat different direction. With generous support from the John Templeton Foundation, I’m just about to embark on an investigation of how people successfully navigate significant life transitions. I’m particularly interested in periods of life when people are transitioning out of core social roles and taking on new ones — shifting, for example, from breadwinner to retiree, from spouse to widow, and so on. This new project will explore the notion that social roles serve important psychological functions in our lives — meeting our need for purpose and direction, clarifying our sense of identity, helping us to feel connected to others, and conferring order and predictability on our lives. As a result, periods of role transition represent a major challenge. I’m interested in the impact of role transitions on various aspects of well-being, the specific social and psychological mechanisms responsible for these effects, and the factors than enable some individuals to thrive during these complex times. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? The pressure to publish has been around a long time, but even in the fairly short while that I’ve been in the field it seems to have gotten more extreme. New PhDs are hitting the job market with longer and longer CVs, and it’s difficult, as a young person anxious about landing a job, not to get swept up in a “counting” mentality. I’d caution against this. For one thing, it doesn’t really work. I’ve served on lots of search committees and invariably the people who have caught our attention are not the ones with the longest CVs, but the ones who are doing the most thoughtful, innovative, rigorously executed research. On top of that, a counting mentality takes all the fun out of the process. Identifying small questions that can be addressed quickly will surely lead to a long CV, but it’s just so much less fun than grappling with bigger questions and thinking hard about how one would go about answering them empirically. It’s the big questions that drew us to psychology in the first place — what a shame not to devote our time and talents to answering them.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison PhD 1997, University of Rochester Area of research: Developmental cognitive psychology http://www.waisman.wisc.edu/infantlearning/infant_research.html Publication most proud of: Saffran, J.R., Aslin, R.N., & Newport, E.L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274, 1926-1928. The publication that has been and continues to be most important for my career actually came in graduate school, when my mentors Elissa Newport, Dick Aslin, and I published a paper in Science concerning infant language learning mechanisms. We were extremely excited about our results, and it was a privilege to have them disseminated so widely. What does your research focus on? I am fascinated by the question of how infants learn about their world. In particular, I focus on language. We have long known that infants learn a tremendous amount about their native language during the first year or two after birth, but we are only just starting to begin to understand how this learning occurs. I also study infant music perception, both because it’s interesting in its own right (I’m a musician myself), but also because comparing music and language learning provides ways to test questions about domain-specificity and domain-generality. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? My mother, Eleanor Saffran, was a psychologist who studied language — in particular, how language breaks down in aphasia and other acquired neuropsychological disorders — so I grew up hearing dinner-table conversations about interesting language phenomena. In high school, I was fortunate to volunteer in Debbie Kemler Nelson’s lab at Swarthmore College, where I began learning about infant experimental methods and issues in language and music cognition. I continued to explore these issues in college at Brown University, where I was mentored by Jim Morgan. Both the issues — particularly the broad issues of nature/nurture and modularity — and the methods excited me then, and they continue to excite me now. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? I have been extraordinarily lucky in having mentors who always treated me like a colleague. After getting my feet wet in Kemler Nelson’s and Morgan’s labs, I had the unparalleled experience of working with Elissa Newport and Dick Aslin in graduate school at the University of Rochester. They were, and continue to be, extraordinary advisors for me in all things, science and otherwise. Finally, my two children, Eli and Nell, are a constant source of great examples and amusing stories to tell in my child development courses. To what do you attribute your success in the science? A combination of mentoring, hard work, timing, and sheer luck, in no particular order. I have also had incredible support from people who “get” what it takes to be an academic, including my parents (who were both professors, my mom at Temple University and my dad at Swarthmore College), my husband, Seth Pollak, whom I met in graduate school and who is also a professor in the psychology department at UW-Madison, and many, many, colleagues and friends. My students, from sophomores to post-docs, are a continual source of inspiration and collaboration. What’s your future research agenda? I believe that we have only scratched the surface of understanding how infants learn, and that new methods, paired with theoretical developments emerging from interdisciplinary approaches to developmental cognitive science (e.g., developmental cognitive neuroscience, computational modeling, linguistics), will allow us to make substantial progress in the next decade. We have also begun to move beyond studies of typical development to investigate aspects of atypical language development, which is a tremendously exciting way to make use of our ideas and methods. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? I would give them the advice that my mother gave me when I started graduate school. She told me that the hardest thing about academia was finding one’s question — what do you really, really want to know? What question keeps you wanting to read after your eyes start to hurt, or makes your heart pound as you push the “compute” button on your statistical software? And of course, that question has to be tractable. Once you have your question, it’s all worth it. But without the question, it’s very hard to stay motivated. So my advice is to focus on trying to find the question. After that, everything else should fall into place.
- Eva Pomerantz
Eva Pomerantz University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign PhD 1995, New York University Area of research: Personality and social development http://www.psych.uiuc.edu/people/showprofile.php?id=20 Publication most proud of: Ng, F.F., Kenney-Benson, G.A., & Pomerantz, E.M. (2004). Children’s achievement moderates the effects of mothers’ use of control and autonomy support. Child Development, 75, 764-780. This paper was the beginning for me of the idea that children’s experiences around competence play a fundamental role in how parents’ practices shape them. I also like this paper because the effect emerged across multiple time frames capturing its unfolding over minutes, days, and months. What does your research focus on? The major emphasis of my research is on the development of children’s motivation. I am particularly interested in how children’s motivation is shaped by social forces. Thus, in much of my work, I have focused on the role of significant others, such as parents and peers, in children’s motivational development. My work is guided by the perspective that children bring psychological resources to their interactions with significant others that shape the influence those others have on them; consequently, the development of children’s motivation is a joint product of children and their significant others. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? When I was in college, I discovered Carol Dweck’s research on children’s motivation. I felt that I had found the key to improving children’s lives. So initially, I was drawn to this line of work because I believed it would provide the foundation for promoting positive development among children. Although this is still a large part of why I do what I do, I am incredibly excited by being able to capture the process by which children’s motivation develops as they move through their lives. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? I have been extremely lucky to have a number of amazing people in my scholarly life since I began college. Like many undergraduates, I wanted to be a practicing clinical psychologist. However, I fell in love with research when taking a developmental psychology course from Lilia Braine at Barnard College. I became involved in her research on children’s conceptions of authority. Lila generously afforded me the opportunity to take part in all aspects of the research from design to writing. Somewhere along the way, she got me hooked on research. Once in graduate school at New York University, I was fortunate to work with Diane Ruble who taught me not only the nuts and bolts of doing research with children, but also how to do so in a theoretically grounded manner. To this day, as I write (and read), I constantly have Diane’s voice in my head asking how is this connected to prior work, why is this important, and so on. I also worked with Shelly Chaiken. From Shelly, I learned what makes a good experimental design; by sitting down with me to go over every word of the first paper I wrote in her lab, she also taught me about the mechanics of good writing. A turning point for me was when I was preparing for my job interview at the University of Illinois. In reading Sarah Mangeldorf’s work, I realized that children play a very large role in their own development and that I had to take this into account. My thinking was never the same. Once at the University of Illinois, Ed Diener played a major role in my scholarly growth. Through his tough questions, he pushed me to think more deeply about my work. I learned how to thoroughly answer a question empirically from watching him and his students. I was also lucky to begin as an Assistant Professor at Illinois with Dov Cohen and Karen Rudolph who, at a series of horrible restaurants, engaged me in lengthy discussions that shaped my work. To what do you attribute your success in the science? I love what I do. I often feel like I am a detective solving important mysteries. One never knows what one will find around the corner. However, even loving what I do, I doubt I would ever have been able to do it without the wonderful students, colleagues, and mentors I have been so fortunate to have. What’s your future research agenda? Over the past few years, my students and I have begun a program of research to examine the role of culture in the effects of parenting on children’s motivation. Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? Pursue a line of research you find exciting. Try to be somewhere where you are surrounded by people who are supportive, but who challenge you because they think differently from you.
University of Pennsylvania PhD 1996, Stanford University Area of research: Higher cognition http://www.psych.upenn.edu/stslab/ Publication most proud of: Thompson-Schill, S.L., Swick, D., Farah, M.J., D’Esposito, M., Kan, I.P., & Knight, R. T. (1998). Verb generation in patients with focal frontal lesions: A neuropsychological test of neuroimaging findings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 95, 15855-15860. This paper was one of a pair of papers that laid the initial groundwork for a new hypothesis: that Broca’s area plays a regulatory function to resolve competition during language processing, which my lab has been pursuing for the decade since. It illustrates the importance of a multi-method approach to providing convergent evidence for a hypothesis. In one analysis, we reported a whopping .95 correlation between the extent of damage to Broca’s area and the magnitude of impairment. I don’t think I’ve had data that clean and compelling since! What does your research focus on? I am interested in many aspects of higher cognition, which I study using a variety of methods, such as eye-tracking, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). I study “normal” cognition as well as cognitive changes associated with aging, stroke, degenerative disease, and even congenital blindness. Much of my research focuses on the role that the frontal lobes play in the regulation of cognitive processes, such as memory and language. I am also interested in the link between perceptual and conceptual processing. What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you? This question was hard for me to answer. Explaining why cognitive neuroscience is exciting to me requires imagining someone for whom it would not be exciting, and my powers of imagination are not that great. How could it not be exciting to try to figure out how neural systems give rise to all the amazing powers of cognition that humans posses? So let me answer the first question: I like logic and I like math and in college I developed an interest in statistics. During my third year, a professor helped me obtain a job at a pharmaceutical company (luckily for me, in Switzerland), working in the biostats group. I was assigned to analyze data from a drug trial of a potential treatment for cognitive deficits associated with Alzheimer’s disease. My project focused on semantic intrusions (saying fork for spoon) and I became hooked on cognitive neuroscience. I obtained my PhD in cognitive psychology (with a focus on semantic memory) when functional brain imaging, specifically fMRI, was just catching on. The need to develop data analysis techniques that adequately controlled both specificity and sensitivity intrigued me, and pulled me into fMRI research. I was fortunate to spend some of my post-doctoral years (at U Penn) in an environment where many people were thinking about better ways to analyze fMRI data. One of the things I miss most, in terms of the day-to-day aspects of my job today, is rolling up my shirt sleeves and getting my hands on the data. As for the research questions I am drawn to now, I think they all have their roots, to some extent, in my early interest in logic and mathematics. I love working on problems that seem complicated, and finding elegantly simple solutions (or rather, proposed solutions) to what otherwise seems like a big muddle. Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences? My parents were both trained in experimental psychology, which gave me a strong resolve to study anything but psychology in college. Oh well. From my college professors at Davidson College, I learned not only how to teach, but also why. From my graduate advisor at Stanford, John Gabrieli (now at MIT), I learned that a happy lab is a productive lab (and if not, at least it’s happy). From my post-doctoral advisor, Martha Farah, I learned the importance of taking academic risks, and from my other post-doctoral advisor, Mark D’Esposito (now at Berkeley), I learned the joys and benefits of broad collaborations. From the Gleitmans, Henry and Lila, I learned what an academic career should look like, how to succeed gracefully, and why I should read things older than me. There’s a lot that I should have learned from all of these people that I didn’t, because I’m stubborn. To what do you attribute your success in the science? Have I been successful yet? I’m not sure, but I have certainly had fun trying. I think that the achievements I have made so far can be attributed to the fact that my job feels like fun. There are many days when I can’t believe I actually get paid to do my job. I am surrounded by incredibly smart and interesting people who I get to talk to about anything on my mind. What could be better? Of course, I also am aware that I didn’t really just stumble on this career. I attribute a lot of my success to the people who steered me here and helped me learn to direct my enthusiasm for science in meaningful and manageable ways. I also attribute a lot of my success to the many individuals who have passed through my lab over the years, the graduate and undergraduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and research assistants. I hope I’ve guided and supported at least one of them as much as my mentors guided and supported me. What’s your future research agenda? Sometimes I am asked for my projection about what I’ll be studying in 10 years. My answer is always the same: If I reach the point when I can answer that question, it might be time for me to do something else! That said, I can tell you about some things I’m currently thinking about. A mind without frontal lobes does not work as well as one with them. But lately I have been thinking about the flip side of cognitive control, which might be related to cognitive flexibility, to creativity, and perhaps even to certain types of learning. For example, the mind of a young child is unencumbered by large, fully myelinated frontal lobes. There are lots of things young children don’t do well. They don’t wait for rewards. They get easily distracted from tasks. They forget to use their “inside voice.” But if you’ve spent time with a young child, you might have re-experienced a world you’ve forgotten — one with an abundance of sights and sounds and smells, one with memories or thoughts that pop up for no reason, one that is influenced more by the external world than by pre-existing theories about how the world should be. Do our frontal lobes develop slowly for a reason? Is children’s learning enhanced by this hypo-frontal state? Does our protracted frontal development reflect the tradeoff between creativity and control? And if so, is adult creativity related to the ability to flexibly move between hypo- and hyper-frontal states? Any advice for someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD? Three things: First, remember that science is never done. You can always work harder, faster, longer, or better. So try to find balance in your life. For me, that comes from my family. With regard to family planning, I believe that there’s no “perfect time” to start a family, but the flip side of this is that there is no wrong time either: My first child was born in grad school, my second at the start of my post-doc, and my third was born during my first month as an assistant professor. Each time period presented challenges, but was do-able. This advice goes for anything in your life that provides balance. Don’t beat yourself up because you want to do something else with your time occasionally. Learn to say “no” once in a while, and leave some things undone until tomorrow. (Did I just advise procrastinating?) Second, if you are considering a research career, don’t be afraid to like teaching, too. I often think some of my colleagues believe that spending time or energy on teaching is akin to “cheating on” one’s research passions. For me, teaching undergraduates has been incredibly important for two reasons. First, it provides a leveling balance to the ups and downs of a research career; it’s the academic equivalent of lithium! I can’t control how an experiment turns out, or whether a paper gets bad reviews, or if a grant gets funded. I find that the successes I have in teaching are more predictable and under my control. Second, I get inspiration for my research from my students. Students reluctantly ask questions that are very naive, exactly the kind of questions that can dislodge a mind that is semi-permanently embedded in theoretical dogma, in a set of assumptions, or even in a particular paradigm. Last but not least, get some sleep! I try to sleep for at least eight hours a night. Really. I’m mentioning this because I don’t think people should be ashamed of sleeping. I get more done in 16 hours when well-rested than in 20 when sleep-deprived.