Columbia Business School, USA
What does your research focus on?
I study how stress affects performance. My research focuses on understanding how organizational environments, characterized by deadlines and multi-tasking, can engender stress, and how this stress can have spill-over effects on performance. I use a multi-method approach that includes behavioral observation, implicit and reaction time measures, and physiological responses (specifically hormonal and cardiovascular responses) to examine how cognitive outcomes are affected by stress.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
Prior to pursuing a PhD, I had a successful career in business and was fascinated by how my colleagues and clients reacted to the stressors of the organizational environment. Some people would thrive while others would buckle under the pressure, which affected their performance. It excites me to conduct research that will shed light on how individuals can learn from and adapt to stress in ways that may improve their performance outcomes, as well as their long term health. This research could also be valuable in helping organizations devise interventions to help individuals better manage the stressors and tensions that can be present in organizational environments.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
David Thomas at Harvard Business School exposed me to academic research when I was an undergraduate and I am truly indebted to him for investing in me and showing me that this path existed. Deborah Frable, Richard Hackman, and Jennifer Richeson introduced me to social psychology when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, and through their courses and mentorship I realized the power of experimental research. More recently, I was blessed to have a fantastic graduate school advisor, Wendy Berry Mendes who is now at UCSF and taught me the value of examining the mind-body relationship in an effort to better understand cognitive performance in organizations. Her energy and passion for research were infectious. I was also fortunate to have Max Bazerman at Harvard Business School as a graduate school advisor whose support and guidance have been invaluable.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
I have had phenomenal mentors who have taught me everything I know, both in the business world and in academia. They have shown me the importance of doing work that has meaning and have taught me how to do this work with excellence. I also had phenomenal graduate school colleagues, particularly Dolly Chugh, Colin Fisher, Kurt Gray, Karim Kassam, Katrina Koslov, Katy Milkman, Tina Opie, and Elizabeth Paige-Gould who pushed me to be my best. They were so on top of their game that I was forced me to be on top of mine!
What’s your future research agenda?
I plan to continue examining the relationship between stress and performance. My future research will explore how the stress generated by factors such as asymmetrical relationships, power dynamics, cross-race relationships, and diversity in organizations can affect various performance variables. My research to date has demonstrated that not all stress is bad and that there is a delicate balance that needs to be managed in order for adaptive and maladaptive stress responses to yield positive outcomes. Managing this tension will require further investigation of the mechanisms underlying the effects of adaptive and maladaptive stress responses on cognitive performance. I also hope to further demonstrate the benefits of applying a multi-method approach to social psychological and organizational research by continuing to incorporate underutilized physiological measures into my research.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Social support is such a critical part of graduate school. Surround yourself with people within and outside of your PhD program who will be your biggest cheerleaders. Try to find mentors very early on who are committed to working with you and teaching you all that they know. And remember, it is a marathon, not a sprint.
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Akinola, M & Mendes, W.B. (2008). The dark side of creativity: Biological vulnerability and negative emotions lead to greater artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (12), 1677-1686.
I have really enjoyed the conversations that this publication generates. From parents drawing upon the experiences of their artistic children, to entrepreneurs discussing how they came up with their business concept, to other academics discussing how they channel the dark side of the review process to come up with innovative research designs, I get to learn so much about people’s experiences with creativity!