EDUCATION: Ph.D. in Social Psychology (with minors in Health Psychology and Measurement) from the University of California, Los Angeles
CURRENT POSITION: Professor of Psychology at Stony Brook University
RESEARCH INTERESTS: Stress, coping, and their impact on health, especially women’s reproductive health.
CURRENT RESEARCH: Psychosocial factors associated with opioid use in pregnancy; Interventions to reduce prenatal maternal stress; Prenatal paternal stress and father involvement; Distress and uncertainty associated with preimplantation genetic testing; Stress, coping, and resilience in people with a rare chronic illness.
FUTURE GOALS: Secure more funding to carry out these projects!
When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science?
Like many smart, ambitious children from a working-class background, I aspired to a career in Medicine because that seemed to be the most highly-respected profession that would make my family proud of me. I had no exposure to professional women (or men) nor did I know much about other career options. So I entered Harvard — thanks to substantial financial aid — as a pre-med Biology major to achieve my childhood dream of becoming a pediatrician. In my first year, I took a course that exposed me to the field of Psychology for the first time. My professor recommended me for a summer job in the play therapy program at Boston Children’s Hospital. It was a turning point for me.
Working alongside the pediatricians, I observed how little they interacted with their patients. They didn’t even know the children’s names! I began to think that many physicians were merely highly-trained mechanics that worked on bodies, but the issues that captivated me involved the ways that patients coped with their injuries and illnesses, and their psychological milieu. I decided to take more psychology courses when I returned for my second year of college. That year, was also an important turning point, because that was when I was introduced to psychological research. I had always loved the clarity and objectivity of science (it’s like solving puzzles, one of my favorite pastimes!), but this was the first time I saw in practice that people’s emotions, attitudes, and behaviors could be studied scientifically. I was hooked. I began working as a Research Assistant for a team of psychologists who allowed me great independence to conduct projects: soon I was collecting and analyzing data, preparing reports, even submitting work to professional conferences (my parents drove 8 hours to watch me give my first presentation; it meant so much to them).
Another professor recommended me for a position at one of the Harvard hospitals to teach data collection methods to a research team there and help oversee their projects. That position led to my undergraduate thesis and co-authorship on publications. These research experiences were instrumental in helping me realize that with a PhD, I could conceive, carry out, and direct my own studies rather than merely working on research under the direction of other people with PhDs. The professors I worked with provided guidance in how and where to apply to graduate school. Fortuitously, UCLA — which boasts one of the strongest Psychology departments in the US — had begun one of the nation’s first doctoral programs in Health Psychology. It offered an ideal match to my interests (and hey, the weather was a lot better than at other universities where I was accepted). Also fortuitous was that the mentor UCLA assigned to me, Dr. Chris Dunkel-Schetter, was starting a research program on psychosocial aspects of pregnancy. At the time, I knew nothing about this topic, but I did have a strong feminist identity and was involved in activism to support women’s reproductive health rights. Studying pregnancy was appealing because it was essentially uncharted territory: Despite the fact that all of us who walk this earth are here because of a woman’s pregnancy, and although pregnancy and birth are memorable, pivotal events for women, psychologists had paid little attention to these experiences, and the minimal research that existed was not methodologically rigorous or theoretically driven. So I accepted the offer of admission to UCLA and there began my research career in psychosocial aspects of women’s reproductive health.
What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science?
Change must occur at many levels and in many domains. For example, we know that the socialization and education of children influences their interests and ambitions. Thus, schools, families, and all of the institutions in our society – including but not limited to the mass media, cultural and religious organizations, government agencies, colleges and universities, even the entertainment industry – play an important part. Additionally, women will not thrive in science or in any career without the supports that acknowledge their roles in childbearing and care giving. Paid maternal leave, access to affordable and high quality childcare and eldercare, universal health care, safe working environments, and pay equity are imperative not only for the health, well-being, and advancement of individual women, but for our society on the whole to function effectively. Men must also assume a larger role in care giving than they do currently. Women are underrepresented in most fields of science, as are people of color. If we can truly create a level playing field to enable all people to pursue and attain the work that best fits their talents and interests, then I believe we will find that each group is properly represented across occupations and fields.
How has mentorship, both as a mentee and a mentor, helped you as a woman in science?
As I noted above, a number of people were instrumental in my path toward becoming a health psychologist, including the psychology professors who guided me toward research positions that they felt would offer good experience. I also had a wonderful mentor in graduate school, Chris Dunkel-Schetter. She continues to be a friend and guide. We all need mentors, regardless of our age or rank. As a mentor myself, I encourage my students to set and achieve their own goals in a timeframe that they determine, to always do their best, to ask for and accept help when needed, and to find the right balance between work and whatever else is important in their life. Each student needs slightly different things from a mentor, so it’s important to recognize and be responsive to a student’s individual style and needs. And no one is an automaton, so a mentor should help students determine reasonable, achievable goals that don’t deprive them of the ability to take care of their health, their emotional state, and to have some fun, too. Helping students pursue their dreams has been one of my greatest pleasures as a professor.
Let’s say you’re having a rough week, what do you do or think to keep yourself going?
First, I’m a planner. I write everything down, I keep detailed calendars and ‘To Do’ lists. It feels great to cross things off one’s list. However, I’m a very busy person and so not surprisingly, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all of my responsibilities. When this happens, I try to remind myself of the philosophy that my now 96-year old mother taught me when I was growing up: How do you eat an elephant? [wait for it..] One bite at a time. I also practice what I preach as a health psychologist: regular exercise (women, don’t forget your strength training!), nutritious eating, and adequate sleep are essential to enable us to cope with stress. I am a confirmed devotee to high-intensity interval training, which is the most effective and time-efficient way to workout. I have a home gym, and I love to cook, so all of that helps.
Do you have any tips or advice for young women scientists in your field?
If you want to have a family while in graduate school, during a postdoc, or at any time in your working life, choose a real PARTNER: someone who will genuinely share all that is required, from decision-making to the daily nitty gritty. Sharing does not always require a 50-50 split in the division of labor, but it does require a split that is fair and equitable. And it’s important to remember that the best-laid plans of mice, women, and men often go awry. As a mother, spouse, daughter, sister, friend, and professor, I can tell you that sometimes we achieve balance in our roles, but we also learn to juggle. Children get sick even when we have a grant deadline and our partner is at a conference. Department Chairs schedule afternoon meetings even on days when we’re scheduled to drive carpool. Don’t catastrophize. Ask for help. One downside of academic life is that many of us take jobs in places where we have no friends or family. Create your own family, find people with whom you can have a mutually supportive relationship. Look around your campus child care center, that’s a great place to find like-minded souls willing to help each other. Finally, give yourself permission to enjoy the things that truly matter in life. So go for a walk, play with your children, watch a movie with your partner, call a friend. No one at the end of their life ever regrets not having published more papers or written more grants. Remind yourself of that daily.