October 15, 2007
Psychology expansion boosts Emory’s power for behavioral research
By CAROL CLARK
Imagine all the ideas, knowledge and interests of Emory’s students and faculty as separate neurons. Now imagine sparking more synapses between these neurons, creating new networks and generating more research across academic and social boundaries.
Construction is under way on a state-of-the-art psychology building designed to do just that. When it opens in 2009, the new facility will consolidate and expand the Department of Psychology, while also serving as an important resource for the natural sciences and every other discipline in the University interested in how the human mind works.
“Psychology is one of our most popular majors,” noted Bobby Paul, dean of Emory College, at the Sept. 28 groundbreaking. “When we talk about the power of Emory to transform students’ lives and the world around them, psychology courses are often behind this powerful transformation.”
The new building will bring together all of the classrooms, offices, clinical spaces and labs of the psychology department — now spread across campus — and become one of a handful of academic psychology facilities in the nation with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) suite, customized for research into the inner workings of the brain.
Forging a science commons
Emory’s Department of Psychology is already a national leader, ranked eighth by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007 for the amount of research produced. “The new building and all of its resources will raise our visibility and help us continue to attract top talent in this increasingly competitive field,” said Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and chair of the department.
“It’s another signal to the rest of the world that Emory is a major player when it comes to cutting-edge research,” added Stephan Hamann, associate professor of psychology.
In its location next to the Department of Chemistry’s Atwood Hall, and a stone’s throw from the Mathematics and Sciences Center, the new building will form a cornerstone of Emory’s “science commons.” The idea is to create a science neighborhood, where scholars from different disciplines mingle and exchange insights as they address some of the most serious problems of the 21st century, from HIV/AIDS, drug addiction and depression to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
“The psychology building is a key part of Emory College’s strategic plan to strengthen bridges between the natural sciences and the social sciences,” said Earl Lewis, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “At the University level, it will foster progress in our strategic initiatives for neuroscience, predictive health, computational life sciences and global health.”
The new building also supports the cross-cutting strategic theme of strengthening faculty distinction, opening up more space for growth in departments throughout Emory College.
“Improving our faculty-student ratio and giving students more access to top-ranked faculty begins to put us in a different league,” said Joshua Newton, senior associate vice president of development in the Office of Development and University Relations.
A ‘whole new world’
During the past 15 years, the field of psychology has taken a quantum leap. Formerly, psychologists studied the mind primarily by interviewing people and observing their behaviors. New technologies and methodologies make it possible to peer into the brain and uncover the neural underpinnings of those behaviors.
“Psychology is entering this whole new world,” Paul said. “There are trillions of connections between different neurons of the brain, and the possibilities for exploration are endless.”
Emory’s department of psychology reflects this explosion of possibilities in the field. When Fivush joined the faculty 22 years ago, she had 20 colleagues. Over the years, the faculty grew to 35, and the psychology building became increasingly cramped. Satellite locations sprang up around campus for classes, clinical work and burgeoning research into depression, schizophrenia, autism-spectrum disorders, early childhood development, the mental health of families and the origins of human morality — just a few of the areas in which Emory is making important contributions.
“It’s an extremely exciting time in psychology,” said Lawrence Barsalou, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, who is researching the nature of knowledge, and its roles in perception, memory, language and thought. “Psychology is on a rapid climb that is changing our understanding of how our minds work.”
“We’re exploring basic questions about the mind and behavior that relate to everybody,” said Fivush, who is investigating the effects of family storytelling on children’s well-being.
Another draw for students, Fivush said, is the fact that the department has some of the most popular professors in the college, well-known names like Marshall Duke, Steve Nowicki, David Edwards, Darryl Neill and Patricia Brennan. “Almost all of our faculty get high evaluations. We have great teachers who make you understand what the subject means for you and the world.”
A collaborative approach
Although the faculty is spread out, forced to commute between offices, classrooms and disparate labs, the department enjoys a high degree of collegiality, and an unusually large amount of collaborative research.
These collaborations extend beyond the department, reaching into multiple disciplines. Emory psychology students and researchers greatly benefit from the department’s proximity to a medical school, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the other sciences and humanities departments within Emory College.
Elaine Walker, Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, is a clinical psychologist who looks at both behavior and biology to study such major mental illnesses as schizophrenia. “My collaborations span just about every science discipline and many medical specializations, including chemistry, biology, genetics, psychiatry, neurology and endocrinology,” she said. “That’s just the way research is done now.”
Psychology’s interface with the humanities is demonstrated by the work of Hamann and Drew Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry. They used fMRI to collaborate on a study about how the brain reacts when people are confronted with negative information about political candidates that they support. The resulting data led to Westen’s book “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” which has made national headlines in the run-up to the presidential primaries.
Entering a new frontier
Currently, psychology students and researchers wanting to perform studies involving fMRI must book time on a scanner at Emory University Hospital. The fMRI machine in the new psychology building will greatly expand their access to the scanning technology. In addition to a high-powered fMRI scanner, the building will include a simulator, to train students to operate the device and to acclimate subjects before they undergo scanning — an especially important feature for researchers working with children.
“The new facility is not just geared for high-powered science, it’s specially designed to enhance instructional and clinical methods,” said Patricia Bauer, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Psychology and senior associate dean for research.
Bauer, a pioneer researcher into how infants form and store memories, came to Emory from Duke University last July. Her current work focuses on using fMRI and other techniques to observe
how changes in the brain, from childhood to adulthood, contribute to the quality of people’s memories.
The resources concentrated in the new psychology building — from fMRI to show real-time changes throughout the brain, to scanners that can track the brain’s electrophysiological responses and movements of the eye — will be used in ways as yet unimagined, as new discoveries lead to new paths of exploration.
“We’re on a quest for knowledge that is leading into uncharted territory,” Paul said. “The future of science is truly unknown but incredibly exciting. However it turns out, in the next couple of decades we’re going to see a whole new way for science to be organized, taught, learned and investigated — and Emory will be one of the top universities leading the way.”