My research interests are directly influenced by a number of formative experiences I had overseas. Mostly through serendipity, I found myself in a number of interesting places and some truly interesting times: I spent a year in South Africa doing volunteer work as that country transitioned from Apartheid to Democracy, I was in Sri Lanka visiting friends during one of the largest Tamil Tiger strikes in that country’s history, and I volunteered at a conflict resolution camp in Ireland during “The Troubles”. What really struck me about these conflicts was that despite the vast differences between them (in language, ethnicity, history), they all seemed to be driven by very similar psychological forces: fear, dehumanization, distorted interpretation of events. While there are a number of conflict resolution interventions aimed directly at circumventing these psychological barriers to peace, what troubled me was that after 50 years of implementing these programs, we have very little idea about what types of interventions work, which don’t, and for whom. These experiences set the seeds of my current research program: to characterize the psychological and cognitive underpinnings of inter-group conflict, and critically evaluate efforts to circumvent or even transcend these processes.
Photo by Matthew Monteith for The New York Times
TWO OTHER BROAD EXPERIENCES CONTRIBUTE TO MY RESEARCH FOCUS:
Immediately after my undergraduate work, I entered into a teaching career: 5 years at Menlo High School teaching Physics, Chemistry and Biology, and 2 years at Peninsula School, my elementary alma mater. One of the basic tenets of Peninsula is interpersonal conflict resolution, so I was able to engage with this other aspect of conflict while teaching there.
After this teaching career, I yielded to an academic itch and entered a PhD program in Neuroscience at the University of Michigan. I spent a delightful 5 years in the lab of Mohammed Akaaboune trying to better understand the molecular dynamics of proteins that may be involved in synaptic plasticity. While I loved this work, the questions about conflict and resolution refused to leave me. So, I decided to make a jump over to the fields of Social Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, finally bringing the focus of my research in line with that of my thoughts.