Joan Chiao

Joan Chiao

Northwestern University, USA

What does your research focus on?

I conduct research in social affective and cultural neuroscience. Currently, my research adopts a ‘cultural neuroscience’ framework to examine how cultural and genetic factors give rise to everyday emotion and social cognition.

What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?

Since high school, I have been interested in neuroscience and understanding how the brain works. In college, I also developed a strong passion for diversity and social justice. Fortunately, research in social affective and cultural neuroscience allows me to pursue these interests simultaneously. Ultimately, I hope that my research with others may be able to inform public policy and population health concerns.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

I have been very fortunate to have a number of intellectually ambitious and influential mentors throughout my training. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, I was mentored by Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist, John Gabrieli, a cognitive neuroscientist, and Alex Golby, a neurosurgeon. They were the first scientists to really teach me of the joy and challenges of interdisciplinary research as well as to encourage me to continue to set high aspirations for myself. My intimate interactions with them early in my research career set the stage for a lifelong commitment to research. During graduate school at Harvard University, Nalini Ambady, a social psychologist, and Ken Nakayama, a vision scientist, were extremely influential in shaping the scope and breadth of my research questions. They were also the first scientists to teach me more of the professional aspects of a research career. Finally, in addition to mentors, I have been fortunate to learn from dedicated and thoughtful collaborators, such as Tetsuya Iidaka of Nagoya University, Ahmad Hariri of Duke University, and Norihiro Sadato of the National Institute for Psychological Sciences in Okazaki, Japan.

To what do you attribute your success in science?

Any success that I may have had thus far in science is due to having wonderful mentors, friends, and colleagues who have been supportive of my research ideas and endeavors, no matter how implausible or impractical they may have seemed at the time.

What’s your future research agenda?

I’m focusing my future research on cultural neuroscience. Cultural neuroscience is an emerging field that examines how cultural values, practices, and beliefs shape, and are shaped, by neural systems. Historically, the study of group differences, particularly biological explanations for group differences, has been taboo. But we have better theories and tools at our fingertips to explore some of the oldest questions about human nature and human diversity. I’m very eager to understand how cultural and genetic diversity affect brain and behavior and anticipate spending the next 10-20 years exploring this question.

Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?

The best advice I got as a grad student is to not be afraid to take risks in developing your ideas and to study what you are truly fascinated by. Graduate school and beyond is a long road with few extrinsic rewards. The sooner that you can find your intrinsic motivation, the happier you will be to develop a long research career.


What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?

Chiao, J. Y. & Blizinsky, K. D. (2010). Culture-gene coevolution of individualism-collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277 (1681), 529-537.

I’m proud of this publication because it cost Kate Blizinsky and I nothing to make this interesting discovery. We also received sage advice along the way from several generous colleagues, which made this a lot of fun to work on together.

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