Emory Report
December 15, 2008
Volume 61, Number 15



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December 15
, 2008
Mentor to students and faculty

By Cary H. Leung

What are the inherent differences between the sexes? If Kim Wallen could answer just one question, that would be it.

“One of the issues that still drives me is how and why males and females are different,” says Wallen, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.

Wallen came to Emory 30 years ago after getting his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. He first became interested in sex differences while growing up on a goat farm in rural Oregon, and noticed how differently the males and females behaved from one another.

Today he studies sex differences in rhesus macaques, monkeys that are native to countries such as India, Pakistan, Thailand, Afghanistan and China. This species lives in large social groups in which females are typically dominant over males.

“One of the earliest studies I did when I came to Emory was to demonstrate that the social environment could influence how the internal hormone state would affect behavior in rhesus macaques,” he recalls. “There were environments where hormones didn’t have any affect and other environments in which the female’s behavior was clearly strongly tied to her hormonal condition.”

Wallen conducts his research at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, where he is a research professor of psychobiology.

“I’ve come to strongly respect rhesus,” Wallen says. “They have a complex social structure and social life. They are compelling if you want to look at a species that shares a lot of physiological characteristics with humans and a social life that is as complex as ours.”

And the graduate students Wallen mentors respect him. He shows genuine interest in their research ideas as much as their recent vacation or the latest YouTube video.

His responses are insightful and often give students a positive outlook.

“My sense as a mentor is to help students develop their inquisitiveness and find out what they are really interested in knowing,” says Wallen. “The thing that is completely unique about being a scholar is that you are allowed to pursue what you want to know. Nothing prevents you from taking an idea and shaping it to fit your own needs.”

Wallen also finds time to mentor younger faculty. “I’ve always felt that part of my responsibility as a faculty member is to help younger faculty members as they go through the same process. Tenure doesn’t get any easier — its still a traumatic experience but sometimes you can provide feedback,” he says.

“I think one of the things that is hardest is that you don’t realize graduate school is the last time you’ll get direct and blunt feedback about what you do. Your adviser can tell you you’ve written a poor paper. It hurts much more if a reviewer says that,” he adds. “You’re lucky if you find a colleague that will do that for you. You’re very much on your own.”

Deciding to pursue academia came naturally for Wallen, but today the idea that all his doctoral students will continue to do research is unrealistic. “There are really old-school faculty that think that if you don’t pursue academia you’re wasting your time,” he says. “I would like students to get the same thrill that I do, but people go one way and then change their mind.

“I’ve had students that have gone into industry and not strictly academic positions. As long as it makes them happy, I think it’s great. We need people who are really good in industry.”

Yet Wallen’s passion for academic research and his desire to share that with his students is clear. “The whole thing about science is that you are seeing something that no one has seen before. And there are truths in the world that will be revealed if you pay attention,” he says. “That’s what drives you as a scientist — that you can make some sense of the world.”