SASSC The Expert Interview
May 6, 2016

Today’s Expert:
Iris Mauss
University of California,

Interview by:
Sandy Lwi
University of California,

Would you briefly describe your current research, and your future research aims?

In my lab we’re interested in emotions and emotion regulation: understanding the emotions that people have and what constitutes an emotional response, and then how people regulate the emotions that they have. We’re especially interested in those two phenomena with regard to how they relate to well-being, functioning, and psychological health. So in other words, how can emotions and emotion regulation make use healthier, wealthier, and wiser, versus less healthy, poorer, and “stupider.” We’re also interested in the various factors that contribute to unhealthy or healthy emotions and emotion regulation, including biological, individual, and cultural ones.

And are these the areas you will be moving towards in future work?

Yes; I feel that we have some ideas about how emotions and emotion regulation relate to well-being and health, but we have by no means fully understood those questions so that’s definitely going to be on our agenda for the future. A couple of more specific directions for the future are to ask whether what we have found for psychological health and well-being will generalize to physical health. In other words, whether those emotions and emotion regulation processes that seem to be good for psychological health are also good for physical health, or might there actually be trade-offs. We’re also interested in more specifically examining emotions and emotion regulation in the context of stress, because we have found that that’s where perhaps those processes have the greatest impact on health, when health is most challenged. So we’re more and more explicitly focusing on that as a context for the questions that we ask.

You are an incredibly successful psychologist in our field, and when I mention you among peers one of the first questions they want to know is how you balance your very successful career as a psychologist with having a family and life outside of academia. Many female graduate students often find this balance to be a difficult or daunting, yet you seem to do it so well. Do you have any advice in this regard, and has it been challenging for you?

(Laughs). There’s always the outside versus the inside perspective on balance. Most people will tell you that from the inside it doesn’t feel like you’re doing a good job; you feel like you’re a disaster (laughs). I will tell people, “you’re doing so well!” and they will respond with something along the lines of, “no, I’m not.” So I don’t know, if there’s a piece of advice in there, I guess it would be to consider that you’re doing a better job than you think you are at balancing the various components of one’s life.

I also think that every life and every career is different. I’m one of those people who had the privilege to be able to wait a long time, specifically until I had tenure before I had a baby, and it’s not an option that everybody should or can consider. I don’t actually endorse that as a good idea, so that’s more advice to not do as I did (laughs). Balance is really hard. Advice I’ve been given that often really helped me is to keep in mind that there are many different ways of doing this. There’s no one correct and good way of going about one’s career, or balancing one’s work and life. The other piece of advice that has helped me is to take the long view if you can. It’s not always possible, but there will always be periods where one thing falls by the wayside, and that’s okay. Over longer periods of time hopefully things balance out. But I realize it’s a privilege to be able to take the long view, and not all environments will support this.

One last thing – and this is probably the most important thing — I want to say is that I think I’ve just been incredibly lucky, to be in environments that have been supportive of, and nurturing of, children and, more broadly, a sense of balance. For example, here at Berkeley we have very good paternal leave policies – a very important thing! And we have a departmental culture that is supportive. We need to all pay attention to maintaining those structural and cultural elements that allow us – and at this point in time, especially women — to have work-life balance or something resembling it (laughs). If we don’t have it we need to work to make that a reality everywhere. I think there are way too many departments and beyond academia, work places, where that’s not a reality.

Thank you so much for sharing that, it’s so helpful to hear this.  

I hope it sends a good message. People often blame themselves, when really it’s about university policies and culture. This is especially so for grad students and postdocs. It’s hard to have kids, because even here at Berkeley, we don’t have an official leave policy, and that is scandalous.

I agree. My sense is that many female graduate students often feel that going into academia doesn’t make it impossible, but certainly makes it difficult, to have a family. So I think it’s important for people to think about the question and hear from people who have successfully navigated this path.

Right, right. And your sense is that this is a stronger feeling for female students?

I do, although I’m also just much more likely to hear from females given that there are a lot more women in the department.

Yes… It’s really not a function of the individuals, it’s a function of the environment that one is in, and the structural and cultural support available. It’s not just the leave but your colleagues who tell you to really take your leave. They have to take it seriously and believe it’s okay, because you don’t want to be implicitly dinged or sidelined as a result of having a family. Those two elements are really important, and I want to be really clear that it’s not the responsibility of the individual women, but the responsibility of the departments and the universities.  

I agree. Were these cultural and structural aspects something you explicitly asked about when you were looking for a job, or did you learn about it once you had arrived at a department?

I explicitly asked when I was thinking about having a child, but before I was thinking about having a baby I wasn’t nearly informed enough. We all need to make that a more explicit consideration when we make choices about where to go for a job, and we need to reward, and continue to reward, universities and departments that have good policies, and call out universities and departments that don’t. I asked about it when I made my most recent move, but it wasn’t an important enough consideration then because I wasn’t thinking about having a baby. But it becomes an important situation, and you should never have to face that choice of either being a PI or having a family. You definitely can do both, but I think it’s true that it’s not an easy thing to do in many places. But there are places, like here, and across the border in Canadian universities where there are great leave policies. Many people report back saying it’s possible to have families (defined as kids) and an academic job. I hear that it’s easier than [in the US]. And Berkeley’s policies are modeled after them.

You come from a line of wonderful mentors and influential thinkers in the field, such as Bob Levenson and James Gross. Can you share some of the advice you’ve learned from your mentors? Also, how did you then find a way to establish your own perspective and research program? I ask this because as students begin to think about the next stage of their own careers they often feel the need to present their work as distinct and unique, while also recognizing that it is based on a culmination of knowledge gained from working with their mentor(s).   

Let’s do the first question first. I feel like I owe my whole career to what I’ve learned from them, and it’s really impossible to put into words, much less a short paragraph. In some ways I’ve learned similar things from them, which isn’t a coincidence (laughs), as perhaps James learned them from Bob. But one thing I’ve learned is to pay close attention to the processes we’re interested in, and to uncover what they are using careful observation and concrete descriptions. A close reading of what these processes are can often generate interesting hypotheses and insights in itself, so look closely and carefully at what you’re interested in, do it in so-called real life, and try to describe it with “everyday” words.

Another thing I’ve learned is the value of looking at processes we’re interested in from different angles. The obvious one in emotions is to not just ask people how they feel, but to look at how they behave, what their faces express, what their bodies do, what their physiology tells us, what they themselves think about what they feel, or how they construe their emotions. So again, it’s important to look at processes from different angles and to not go in with the assumption that these various levels of analysis will tell us the same thing, as within their dissociations and contradictions can lie interesting insights. Those are a couple of things I’ve learned; I am sure this is just the explicit tip of an iceberg of implicit lessons.

As for the second question, I can say it usually happens on its own, and it emerges over time. That’s another thing I learned from James! When I was at the end of my graduate training, I was saying, “But I don’t have my own thing! I don’t have any coherent ‘one thing!’” And James basically said not to worry about it. Do what you’re interested in, and a theme, including an independent theme, will emerge. I believe it’s not something you can sit down and strategically plan ahead of time. If you follow your interests over time and are careful and thoughtful, something will emerge. And that’s sort of what happened. I don’t want it to sound like some amazing process!

I also want to add that sometimes independence is over-valued. Sometimes we start out thinking “I have to do a completely new, completely independent thing”, but I’m a group worker, and much good research gets done in groups (at least I hope!). I don’t know how much good, multi-method research can be done by one single person. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not doing your own, completely independent thing.

This is so reassuring to hear. As an older student myself, it always appears to me that by the time people are applying for jobs, them seem to know how to package all of their work into a neat narrative, and exactly what research interests they’re going to pursue.

Right, right, that “this is me, and nobody else!”

Exactly! It feels intimidating for people who 1) aren’t sure how to do that yet, and 2) aren’t absolutely sure about what areas they want to pursue for the rest of their career. It’s very encouraging to know that you also felt unsure, and that you discovered your own line of research with time and careful attention to your interests. I feel this will help people know that it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers already. There’s time to figure it out and think about it. And not knowing the answers doesn’t mean you’re not ready for the next stage of your career.

Yes, that’s true. I also think that once people graduate they think, “oh, I can never ask anyone for advice anymore.” But: Our advisors usually stay our advisors for life, and we have so many people who continue to be advisors and give us advice. There might be some people who might say that’s not good, but I can’t see anything wrong with benefiting from the wisdom of people who have been at work for longer than we have been. In that regard I have been very lucky to be surrounded by people who are extremely generous with their time and insights. I hope I get to pay it forward one day.

One of the areas you started in was how people responded to environmental stressors. I was curious about whether going from studying environmental stressors to a different area (i.e., emotion regulation) may have first seemed daunting. I asked because the field is moving towards interdisciplinary approaches, and for a student studying emotion who may, for example, want to learn more about neuroimaging, tackling this new area or new methodology can feel challenging. What have you find to be most helpful as you learned about a new approach or research area?

You’re right in pointing out that students in affective science particularly face that challenge. I come across it myself all the time, for example with integrating cultural questions into my research, or integrating clinical phenomena into my research. And I think it’s important to keep an incremental mindset. We’re all constantly learning, so we should try not to expect ourselves to just be an expert. And that’s true for grad students, but it stays true throughout one’s career. We all keep learning, and keep having the experience that we’re complete ignoramuses in particular fields. We need to learn new methods, new approaches, and new theoretical frameworks. In my experience, that becomes increasingly difficult, so grad school and post-docs are great places to make those big time investments for learning new methods, approaches, and frameworks in depth. It becomes increasingly difficult (laughs), just because there are more demands on your time, between teaching, research, mentoring, and service. But it is absolutely a part of any academic career – to regularly learn completely new things – and that’s a good thing. But, if you can do it earlier there are benefits to that.

I also think it’s good to consider making a conscious decision about whether you really want mastery of a method, or learn it a little bit so that you can be a knowledgeable collaborator. You can’t master every single method that is relevant to your research. Sometimes you need to draw a line and decide you will just learn a little bit in order to be a good collaborator. That decision is a personal one, made on a case by case basis, as to when you make a major investment and when do you decide not to.

And how do you think you made those decisions? Were they based on assessments of your own interests?

Yeah. And sometimes it’s strategic, based on things like time constraints. For example, the year you move to a new job and set up a new lab is probably not a great year to learn a whole new method (laughs).

Last question. If a graduate student had to prioritize learning one skill, or cultivating one ability, during their time as a student, which skill or ability would you recommend?

Oh. Hm. Write well? I can’t pick one! Writing well and having good data analytic skills would be the main ones.

I feel that writing well is something every graduate student works on and worries over. Do you have any advice on how to write well, or any best practices you would like to share?

That’s a hard question. I come back to thinking it’s a mindset thing. Write drafts. Then go through writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting… (laughs) rewriting, rewriting, getting input, and having an open mind to getting input. Having a community of people that helps you with writing, like a writing group, can also be very helpful. It feels obvious, but many of us think that we should be able to have the perfect product right away. It took me a while to come to terms (laughs) with the fact that it takes me a long time to write anything. But other people who write well and write a lot will say they have the same experience. It takes a long time, just write and re-write.

Thank you so much for this interview, it was such a pleasure hearing your thoughts on these questions, and getting to know more about you!

Sure, thank you!