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Psychologists Receive NIH Pioneer, New Innovator Awards

Two psychologists were named this week as recipients of two of the most prestigious awards given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In what feels a lot like a slam-dunk, two psychologists were named this week as recipients of two of the most prestigious awards given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Professor of Psychology at Boston College, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, was among the 12 scientists recognized as Pioneer Award recipients by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni at a symposium on September 19. This is the 4th year the Pioneer Awards have been given. Each recipient receives $2.5 million in direct costs over a period of five years. The Pioneer Awards are given to scientists at any career stage. Recipients were selected through a special application and review process, using more than 250 experts from the broad scientific community, with final recommendations made by the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee.

Sociologist Peter Bearman, Columbia University, was also among the Pioneer Award winners.

The New Innovator Awards, also announced on September 19th, are meant for new scientists who have not yet received an NIH regular research (RO1) or similar grant. Kristen C. Jacobson, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, was the only psychologist of the 29 recipients for this award.

“I am beyond delighted to receive this award! It will allow my lab and my collaborators to move forward with several innovative research programs to investigate what are emotions, both as psychological and as natural phenomena,” commented Barrett.

“All of the research that we will conduct is inspired by the idea that the psychological events that people call ‘emotion’ are conceptual acts, emerging from the interaction of two more basic psychological processes that map to networks in the brain. The first is a primitive or core affective system that produces neurobiological states experienced as pleasant or unpleasant with some degree of arousal. Core affect is not specific to emotion, but is a fundamental feature of consciousness. The events that people call ‘anger’ or ‘sadness’ or ‘fear’ occur when core affect is categorized, using a conceptual system for emotion,” said Barrett.

“The Pioneer Award will not only allow us the opportunity to investigate key questions about the nature of emotion, but we hope the work will have a broader impact on how the field maps psychological constructs to the brain. At its core, our work suggests that some of the commonsense distinctions that people make (e.g., emotion vs. cognition) may not serve psychological science well, and are very likely not respected by the brain. Our work also implies that certain psychological categories (e.g., ‘anger’) are real because people (at least within a given culture) all agree that this is so (much like pieces of paper called money are real because people all treat them as such). And language may serve as the glue or anchor for these types of psychological constructs, potentially carving joints into nature,” remarked Barrett.

Finally, Barrett said, “I was very proud to be a psychologist,” when accepting the Pioneer Award.

Jacobson has been on the faculty at the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychiatry since 2005. Previously she served on the faculty at Virginia Institute of Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at the Virginia Commonwealth University . She earned her PhD in Human Development and Family Studies from The Pennsylvania State University. Jacobson is the recipient of a National Institute of Mental Health Mentored Scientist Career Development Award.

Innovator Award recipients will receive $1.5 million in direct costs over a five year period. Jacobson will use the Innovator Award to study the interactive effects of biology and genetics as well as family, peer, and neighborhood characteristics on adolescent problem behavior. She is especially interested in how interactions between risk and protective factors are associated with socioeconomic and racial/ethnic differences in problem behavior, and in how environmental effects, particularly stress, get “inside the body” to influence biological processes.

Jacobson noted that “the field of behavioral science is at an exciting frontier in the 21st Century, with biomedical advances, particularly in genetics and neuroscience, leading to a better understanding of the mechanisms that cause disease and behavioral disorders. Nevertheless, I believe it is extremely important not to discount the effects of social and environmental influences as they relate to individual differences in adolescent development, not only in behaviors and traits, but also in how these contextual influences may alter or interact with the more basic biological processes. I am therefore extremely gratified that among all of the outstanding proposals for basic biomedical research that were selected for funding, that my study, which will try to integrate environmental and biological processes, was one of the ones selected for an Innovator Award.”