Wendy Johnson

This is a photo of Wendy Johnson.University of Edinburgh, UK


What does your research focus on?

My research explores how genetic and environmental influences transact to shape the way people move through their lives and become the varied individuals we see around us. This is really broad, I know. I’m particularly interested in cognitive ability, how it develops in childhood, why and how it varies so much among individuals, what it is in the brain, how people use it or don’t, how it is integrated with personality and emotional expression, how it is shaped during education, and how it changes in old age. This takes me in many directions involving medicine and mental health, sociology, education, personality, genetics, embryology, and evolutionary anthropology.

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

I think as much as anything I was drawn to this line of research by the births of my children, now 19 and 21, so not children anymore at all. It was so plain from the very beginning that they are different people, but also that they are similar in many ways. I was a consulting actuary at the time, and it took me 10 years to arrange to leave that profession and go to graduate school in psychology, but I’m really glad I did!

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

I have had a lot of mentors. I go back to my high school math and English teachers; some of my undergraduate professors, maybe especially Ben Freedman and Joan Moschovakis of Occidental College; some of my actuarial supervisors such as John Phillips; and Norma McCoy and Becky Loewy from San Francisco State University where I went to get ready to make an application to a PhD program when I decided to give psychology a try. But my most direct mentors in this field are at the University of Minnesota, where I did my PhD. They include Matt McGue, Tom Bouchard, Bill Iacono, Irv Gottesman, David Lykken, Auke Tellegen, and Bob Krueger. Since completing my degree, I’ve also been privileged to be mentored by Ian Deary and Earl Hunt.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

I’d be nowhere at all without the fantastic longitudinal studies and databases my mentors and others have compiled and shared with me. But my curiosity and energy have been important too. The fact that my undergraduate degree is in math and that I spent years as an independent consultant in a technical field have been huge helps.

What’s your future research agenda?

Just to keep on. I have only the barest hints at what I really want to know! Ultimately, I’d like to reach a point where I’ve got some sense of something that can be done with what I’ve learned to help people overcome difficult situations and/or find life situations that suit them well.

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

Take as much math as you can get your hands on. Take apart statistical methods you are taught and learn the math underlying them. It really helps with thinking clearly. Read constantly and not just in your immediate area of interest.

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

The publication I’m most proud of is the one I’m working on right now. Once they come out, all I can usually see is how limited my understanding was back when I wrote them.

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