Professors Frances Chen, Jiaying Zhao and Rebecca Todd are scientists in the Department of Psychology at UBC. In this Q & A they reflect on their research, their ideas, their mutual love of food and the friendship they have formed in their first year at UBC.
Q: How did you get started in your career in psychology?
FC: I took a psychology class in high school and it was the first time I wanted to read a whole textbook just for fun. So when I began college, I was eager to take a lot of psychology classes. I really fell in love with it during my first experience working in a lab as an undergraduate and I’ve been in psychology ever since.
RT: To contrast Frances, we didn’t have psychology classes in high school and I didn’t take psychology as an undergraduate student. I was a contemporary dance choreographer, married to a cognitive scientist who was collaborating with artists and scientists. At the same time I started collaborating with a neuroscientist and was interested in cognitive psychology. Eventually, through these art and science collaborations, I realized I wanted to do science. I audited some undergraduate courses in psychology and eventually applied to a graduate program in psychology and neuroscience. I took a different path to get here.
JZ: I started reading a lot of psychology books in high school, like William James and B.F. Skinner, and other psychologists. That’s how I became interested in psychology.
Q: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career? How did they influence you?
JZ: When I was growing up intellectual role models were scarce. One of my first mentors that made a huge impact on me was Dan Osherson, my advisor in graduate school. He challenged and sharpened so many aspects of my thinking that I felt reborn with a whole new set of intellectual skills.
FC: Too many to name! The overall feeling I remember from my time as a psychology student was that my professors were on the edge of discovery and doing really exciting research to map the mind and to understand the human experience. That atmosphere was inspirational and motivational for me.
RT: Mine were choreographers and theater directors. Pina Bausch was a big inspiration for me in my early 20’s – and she still is. Elizabeth Lecomte was a strong women director and an innovator. In psychology, a great role model for a women researcher is Marisa Carrasco at NYU. She does fantastic science and navigates a complicated political world with integrity and warmth. She serves as a strong mentor to other researchers.
Q: Did you ever consider pursuing a different career?
FC: I had moments where I thought I might go down a different path. When I was in grad school, several of my friends were working in start-ups and technology in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were working on exciting projects that I thought could have also been fun to pursue. But honestly, being a professor of psychology was always my dream job.
JZ: I considered many careers since I was five. In kindergarten, I wanted to become a medical doctor, then a biologist in high school, and eventually I chose psychology. The reason I got into science is that I love nature. I literally watched all Planet Earth and related nature shows.
RT: Me too, nature was a big inspiration for me! My dad was a biologist. The brain is a part of nature and human behaviour is another form of it.
JZ: We understand a lot about plants and ants and dogs, but not so much about human beings, which are just another animal.
RT: It’s a large complicated ecosystem in our heads.
Q: How is the Department of Psychology and UBC contributing to your success?
RT: Our faculty provides a lot of advice and support for grant writing; they’re willing to read over proposals and give tips. The department’s administrative staff helps too. Our finance, communications and IT teams help us in many ways.
JZ: Yes, our faculty is very generous about sharing their knowledge about grants. And at UBC, the SPARC program offers a lot of grant-writing resources and helps with internal review.
FC: It’s a very supportive environment, and we celebrate each others success. For example, because of UBC Public Affairs and their media outreach, a lot of people knew about a paper I had published shortly after I started here. It was great to know that my colleagues were excited for me. That kind of environment definitely makes you feel welcome and supported.
Q: Tell us about some of the work you have been doing since you started at UBC – and any collaborations.
FC: My work focuses on social relationships and how these relationships influence our health and wellbeing, both for the better and the worse. One project I’m working on is tracking social and health outcomes in first year of university students. And Jiaying and I started collaborating on a project this year too! The way that came about was a perfect example of the fluid boundaries between our social lives and our work lives. Jiaying and I were just having lunch one day and talking about upcoming deadlines and how were stressed we were about them – and the perception of time came up.
JZ: The idea is that we tend not to act until just a few days before the deadline, regardless of how grand the task is. So we may operate under a temporal attentional window. That is, things will only get my attention if they are within the remaining few days. Frances and I used the Connect system last term and we tracked the statistics for when students viewed the requirements for class assignments and final exams. We each plotted the frequency of visits and both of us saw huge spikes in visits one or two days before the deadlines.
RT: Another collaboration I’m doing with Jiaying is a project I’m calling ‘Climate Change Blindness’. We’re combining her work on sustainability and my work on affective biases. One week I noticed there were a lot of headlines in the local news about the sea level rising in Vancouver. False Creek in particular was one of the lowest lying areas. At the same time I was talking to people who mentioned they were interested in buying property in False Creek. I was surprised that they hadn’t seen the headlines. We started to explore if people are blind to climate change even though they believe in it or have concerns about it. We began our research with undergraduate students, who we found are quite tuned to cues of climate change. Their capacity to see cues related to the climate change over other information in the environment is greater the more they care about climate change. We’re excited to take this study into the field to see if there is a relationship between concern about buying property in these areas – and the ability to see cues of climate change.
JZ: Yes, I’m about to run a study in Vancouver to see if there are any cognitive differences between people living in areas where there is less risk of flooding, such as UBC, and people in low lying areas, such as the Delta. I’d also like to see how the current weather triggers concerns about climate change and see if the proximity to these high-risk areas affects cognitive resources or concerns about climate change. I’m also working on Project Happiness, a year-long research project to discover where, when and why people are happiest on UBC’s campuses.
Q: When you’re not doing research or teaching, what are you doing outside of UBC?
JZ: We eat!
RT: We eat a lot! We are Olympic-level eaters.
FC: Vancouver is an amazing city with so much to offer. It’s fun to have these two to explore the city with!
RT: We also go to the beach often and sometimes I drag them kayaking. I’m more enthusiastic than they are and they’ve been humouring me.
Q: What else do you have in common? What brings you together outside of UBC?
FC: We have a lot of mutual and shared experiences. We’ve been writing grants at the same time. We’ve had success and failures and we’ve supported each other through all of it. It really helps just knowing that other people are going through the same things – things that are often overwhelming, but also exciting.
RT: Yes, we’ve gone though the same successes and failures! We started teaching courses at the same time and we went through the same feelings of being overwhelmed.
JZ: Also because this is the first time we taught, knowing that others are going through similar experiences and problems is reassuring.
Q: What can grad students benefit from by working in your labs?
RT: They get a chance to be exposed to a wide range of methods and approaches in psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Because of the topics we study, the work has a lot of overlap with areas of clinical, social, and developmental psychology. And students can gain experience with various brain imaging methods, including EEG and fMRI, as well working with genotyping data and eye tracking and behavioural measures. One of the most important lessons I learned as an early grad student – and I learned it from an undergraduate – is to fear no method and my hope is that that students working with me be methodologically fearless as well.
FC: I love supervising students who are passionate about research. It’s so rewarding to see students grow into confident, independent researchers. As an academic supervisor, my primary goal is to help students on that path by providing solid training and mentoring in the kinds of methods and skills they’ll need to have a successful academic career.
JZ: My lab is running several projects that require insights from cognitive science, environmental science, and behavioral economics. My students come from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, so having them talk in one room is not easy. I think grad students will benefit from being challenged and exposed to new perspectives.
Q: How can we get more girls interested in science?
JZ: Most of my lab is female – so I’m doing my best! I felt emotional when I watched the video Like a Girl. Young girls don’t realize the gender differences and it’s only when they reach a certain age that they realize gender stereotypes. The video encourages girls not to fall into those stereotypes.
RT: I grew up in a small town in the US and it wasn’t considered attractive for a girl to be smart and into science. Girls might have felt that no one would like them. And as a girl, you played down that aspect of yourself. That may have been why it took me a while to get in touch with my inner nerd.
FC: When I was a student, I looked around at the successful scientists and professors and wondered if I was enough like them to “make it.” I worried that I was too introverted, or not aggressive enough, or whatever. For me, the insecurities that might have held me back were as much about my personality as about my gender. So one thing I think matters a lot is making sure that young people have a diversity of role models to look up to. I think young people with vastly different backgrounds, personalities, genders, races, can grow up to be successful scientists. They should to be able to look at this career path, if they’re excited about it, and say, “Hey, other people like me have been able to do this. I can imagine myself doing this too.”
Q: In closing, do you have any words of encouragement for future scientists?
RT: If you like doing it, it’s the funnest thing you can do! It’s a great way to spend your time. It’s an incredible feeling to have a job that you love.
JZ: Yes, I don’t get “work life balance”. It’s misleading. To me, this is my life. I don’t consider it work because I love it.
FC: Well, it’s a long road, a hard road, especially grad school. And being a professor is a lot of work, but I completely agree with Jiaying and Beck. I couldn’t imagine a more fun job. I get to explore and discover new things constantly.
RT. And you get to satisfy your curiosity all of the time.
Professors Chen, Todd and Zhao are currently accepting applications for graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows. Please send a CV, transcript, and brief description of your research interests to the email address listed on their faculty profile pages.