How did you become interested in psychology?
I started out at Oberlin College in Ohio as a chemistry major, but I wasn’t very good at the labs. So I switched to mathematics. I didn’t take my first psychology course until my junior year of college, and I fell in love. It was too late at that point to change my major, so I took as many psychology courses as I could and graduated with a degree in mathematics. I then went on to graduate school in psychology at University of California, Berkeley.
Who was your mentor and how did he/she help your development as a psychologist?
During my undergraduate studies, I actually had two mentors. One was Celeste McCollough, who taught my Introduction to Psychology class in 1967. She was the first female faculty member I had had at that point. She was a fabulous teacher, and I really identified with her.
My second mentor during my undergraduate studies was Norman Henderson. I began to work in the lab with him, doing mouse behavior genetics research. He took me under his wing and taught me how to do lab research, wrote recommendation letters for me, and more. I even still call him to ask him questions. Having an undergraduate mentor is extremely important.
My mentor during graduate school at UC Berkeley was Bill Meredith, who was a quantitative psychologist when I was there from 1969 to 1972. I had a great experience with him, and he was very supportive.
What made you decide to teach?
I knew I wanted to teach from a pretty early age and decided to get my PhD to teach college. Otherwise, I would have to be a high school teacher and deal with discipline and hall passes. I was originally attracted to getting a PhD specifically so that I could teach. I continue to love teaching and researching equally.
At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I teach two undergraduate courses, Psychology of Women and Human Sexuality. I love teaching them both. I care enormously about both topics and wrote a textbook on each. I am completely committed to conveying that information to students.
Do you have any tips for students planning to attend graduate school?
It’s really important to be involved in faculty members’ labs. You’ll need letters of recommendation for your grad school applications. Working in labs will also test the extent you love research. Some find it great, and others find it boring. You don’t want to go to graduate school and find out you don’t like doing research, so you need undergraduate experience with it.
It’s also important, as you search for graduate schools, to consider what you want your degree to be in and beyond. There are many different degrees in psychology that you can get. If you want a PhD, you need to find a department with a mentor who matches your interests.
Being involved in your Psi Chi chapter gives you an advantage because it provides leadership opportunities. As you proceed, it’s important to have leadership skills. Psi Chi students also have the opportunity to get to know their professors better.
How did you become interested in the study of women and gender in particular?
My interests migrated over time. I was first interested in mouse behavior genetics studies. I actually did my dissertation in graduate school on this. I was hired at Bowling Green State University to do that, too. But at that same time, the ["second wave”] of theWomen’s Movement was getting active while I was there, and I read a couple of classic books like Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. I found it compelling and relevant and then wanted to start a new course on the psychology of women. This was one of the first courses like this in the nation, and students flocked to it. I was interested, and they were interested. It was a whole new area that had never been studied before and had really been ignored.
Where does your inspiration for your research come from?
My inspiration comes from multiple sources. Some are social and political interests that are important to me. One was former President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers’ speech about women not being as good at math as men. I wanted to see if that was true. I got a grant from the National Science Foundation and studied this. I mostly think about what is important to study, instead of doing a fine-grained study. I wanted to study gender differences in depression in adolescence because twice as many boys are depressed during adolescence than girls. This can have terrible repercussions, so I wanted to do something about it.
What kinds of results has your research had in terms of the media and society in general?
feel like I keep chipping away at a problem but don’t ever completely solve it. My study of math differences between genders has gotten a lot of media attention, but I really want the word to get out to teachers and parents because they are the gatekeepers. They are the ones who encourage or discourage girls to do math. I’ve had people contact me, telling me that my research has changed how they think about things. Our culture, though, continues to encourage stereotypes, and we need to chip away at that before we can solve all the problems. I feel like I’ve made contributions toward solving the problems.
Specifically, Seventeen magazine in the past has told girls that appearance is the most important thing. That won’t help them become physicists, though. Now, Seventeen is trying harder to publish articles that will really help girls. The concern with movies and videos is the sexualization of girls and women. Boys and girls watch them and see girls as sex objects. This is incompatible with getting a career in math or science. It distracts girls. I am hoping that the end of these stereotypes will come soon and that people will get tired of the over-the-top television shows and movies.
What studies will we see from you in the future?
There is no doubt that there will be more meta-analyses from me. There are many other important questions that need a conclusion, such as the question of gender differences in depression in adolescence. I am working on this with genetic data and connections to stress.