Friday, November 29, 2013

I'm Thankful For Female Role Models in Psychological Science

Zoe! Science!
My brain may still be in a fog from all the food I ate yesterday, but that isn't going to stop me from being thankful. I'm thankful for a great many things in my life: My family, my health, and my job are three things that first come to mind. I am especially thankful for my daughter Zoe, who just turned 8 months old last week, and is, pretty much, the best baby in all the universe (admittedly, I haven't been EVERYWHERE in the universe, but I think it's at least a fair hypothesis with some empirical support). When I think about Zoe growing up, I wonder about the kind of person she is going to be and the things she is going to be interested in doing for her life. Along with these thoughts, I worry about whether Zoe's interests will conflict with what the world around her says about what she can or cannot do. If she wants to go into science, for instance, will there be people or institutions telling her that science simply isn't a thing that "people like her" are interested in? Thinking about this must be raising my blood pressure.

You're an intelligent bunch, PYM readers, so I don't need to review all the details, but when women pursue science careers they face barriers that men do not. These barriers include norms and expectations that socialize men and women to think that a science career is only compatible with the male gender, unwanted sexual advances from superiors (typically men) who make the science environment a hostile workplace (here), and direct and indirect discriminatory practices that make it more difficult for women to succeed in a science career (here for an example, and here behind a paywall).

And yet, despite these significant obstacles, women still pursue science careers and excel! Today, I would like to give thanks to my female role models in psychological science. These are female scientists who have shaped my research career and through their own path-breaking work, have made science more accessible to women everywhere!

Serena Chen. Dr. Chen received her undergraduate training from Cornell University and her graduate training from NYU before she took jobs at the University of Michigan and then the University of California, Berkeley--where she is currently a Professor of Psychology and the Marian E. and Daniel E. Koshland Jr. Distinguished Chair for Innovative Teaching and Research. Dr. Chen studies the social self--specifically how the self is connected to romantic relationships, cultural groups, and social roles. In some of my favorite research of hers, she finds that only people who are exchange oriented in relationships--that is, people who tend to keep close accounting of relationship favors and benefits--tend to use power to be mean and nasty to subordinates. People who are communal--who relate to others just for the sake of relating--tend to be nice when they are in power. Before this research the prevailing wisdom was that power corrupts (no matter the person)! Dr. Chen has won awards from prestigious organizations like the Association of Psychological Science and Society for Self and Identity.

Dr. Chen is director of the Self, Identity, and Relationships lab and she supervises a small army of graduate students on a number of different research projects. Dr. Chen is a great mentor, and I have an example of this from my own experience working with her: I worked with Dr. Chen on my undergraduate honors thesis--without which I likely wouldn’t have had a career in research in the first place. It was 2002 and I was an inexperienced undergraduate with only a semester of research assistant experience under my belt. Dr. Chen took a chance on me that year, and agreed to sponsor my thesis, despite me flubbing several softball questions about research that she lobbed my way in our early meetings (Pro tip: blank stares don't impress Professors). Throughout the year-and-a-half thesis, I learned how to be a researcher, and nearly all of what I learned can be attributed to her guidance. I was given space to independently develop my hypotheses, opportunity to collect my own data and run analyses, and support during times when I became stuck. At one point nearly the entire thesis was covered in red track changes. Instead of pointing out that I was not a good writer, Dr. Chen assured me that this sort of editing was part of the natural research process. I try to (albeit poorly) model her approach to mentoring with my own students.

Wendy Berry Mendes.  Dr. Mendes received her graduate training at UC Santa Barbara and worked first as a Professor at Harvard University before settling in as the Sarlo-Ekman Chair of Emotion Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Mendes is one of the foremost experts in emotion and social psychophysiology. She has won awards from prestigious organizations in psychology, including APS and SPSP, and she currently serves on the editorial board at the flagship journal of APS, Psychological Science.

The thing that impresses me most about Dr. Mendes, and there are a lot of things that impress me, is that she is sharp and up-to-date with respect to everything in our field! Normally, when I speak to psychologists I tend to glaze over a bit when the discussion strays to topics that I'm not an expert on. Dr. Mendes doesn't seem to have this problem: During a coffee break you might find Dr. Mendes engaging one person in a debate about the proper intervention condition for a study on mindfulness training, another in a back-and-forth on questionable research practices in psychology, and a third on the existence (or not) of specific emotions. Dr. Mendes is proficient and well-read on all of these topics and in the two years I worked in her lab, I found myself reading more just to keep up with her.

Dr. Mendes is also incredibly generous with her time. She collaborates with many different laboratories, she donates her time to informal training sessions in psychophysiology, and she finds time to offer sage career advice to other researchers at conferences. For instance, last year she hosted a lunch discussing work/life balance issues in psychology careers.

Nancy Adler. Dr. Adler is a Professor and Vice Chair of the Dept. of Psychiatry and the Director of the Center for Health and Community at UCSF. Dr. Adler conducts research on important and interesting topics that use methods from psychology, epidemiology, and neuroscience. She has won awards from everywhere! 

I think Dr. Adler's most impressive quality is her ability to connect with other scholars and researchers. As the director of the Center for Health and Community (CHC), Dr. Adler brings together people from all different research backgrounds and she coaxes them to work together to decrease disparities in health and well-being. Science needs scholars like Dr. Adler, who have both the vision and the practical skills to put large teams of researchers together working in harmony! Dr. Adler also writes or co-writes a large number of grants that help to fund a small army of postdoctoral scholars at the CHC.

Dr. Adler was one of my heroes in graduate school. I study social class, and some of her work examines how subjective perceptions of one's rank in society influence health outcomes. This work inspired me to do a bunch of my own research on similar topics as a graduate student. Having a chance to work with her at UCSF was really a lucky situation for me!

Rhona Weinstein. Just like Dr. Chen, Dr. Weinstein was instrumental in launching my graduate school career. Dr. Weinstein is a Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley and she studies expectations in schools--that is, the extent that high expectations improve academic outcomes for children and adolescents. She has written a powerful book on this topic titled Reaching Higher: The Power of Expectations in Schooling. It is an excellent book worth reading!

In the 2002-2003 academic year, Dr. Weinstein led a class of 20 Berkeley undergraduates in a year-long honors thesis course. The course itself provides structure for undergraduates who are, for the first time, responsible for a year long independent project with an uncertain outcome. I loved this class because it was so helpful to realize that I was struggling just as much as 20 other students in the pursuit of an honors thesis. Dr. Weinstein in particular was unbelievably helpful during this year long process: She read each of our independent theses and provided comments (WOW!!!!), she encouraged us to present our work at conferences, and she set reasonable deadlines and expectations for our completed work. Dr. Weinstein had the ability to steady everyone's hand: When we all started to feel a little hopeless about finishing our theses on time it was Dr. Weinstein that encouraged us to stay the course!

When Zoe grows up, I don't know who she will be or what kind of work she will want to do. But, I do hope that if she has a passion for science, that the world will encourage her in that pursuit. Thanks to these women and the many groundbreaking others like them, I'm beginning to feel more and more hopeful for the future!

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