Shawn Bates, PhD

Assistant Professor of Psychology

Dr. Shawn Bates is not only a neuroscientist, but he also describes himself as a foodie, a husband, a son, a brother, and a travel enthusiast. His curiosity started as a child, and he enjoyed taking things apart even if he wasn’t able to put them back together. His formal scientific journey started in California; he then moved to Texas, then to Pennsylvania, and finally back to California. He feels that his journey was worthwhile, especially as he met his wife along the way. “If I hadn’t moved I might not have grown as much as a person and be where I am today,” he says.

In August 2020, he began a position at Cal State University, Chico, as an assistant professor, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. CSU Chico is a Hispanic-serving institution, and amidst the pandemic, he faced several challenges. He admits that embarking on this transition during the outbreak was not easy, especially since he could not have in-person time with students. However, Shawn found ways to interact with students – he participated in a trivia night organized by Chico State’s Psi Chi chapter, and that led to the group inviting him more formally to speak to them and to further increase his interaction with students. He has also participated in events that were organized by Chico State’s Cross-cultural Leadership Center.

Shawn loves spending time with students. Furthermore, he is committed to engaging as many underrepresented students as he can and providing them with an environment that they can feel comfortable in. He is currently setting up his lab, and is mentoring an Honors student that will help him get things started while juggling classes. In Spring 2021, he will teach an upper-division class where he can share his research interest in addiction and stress in adolescence with more advanced students. Shawn’s research interest is in the effects on addiction to various drugs, including recreational as well as therapeutic, between adolescents and adults, but also what role social interactions or the lack of thereof play in the abuse of drugs.

“I was given a very simple experiment to begin with [in Dr. Trujillo’s lab] and since then I have been chasing that high of succeeding on an experiment…”

Shawn’s Ph.D. is in Neuroscience and his favorite courses in college were Biological Psychology, Clinical Psychology, and Personality Psychology. He always thought he’d become a clinical psychologist and did not consider himself a scientist until he met his Master’s mentor, Keith A. Trujillo, a Psychology professor at CSU San Marcos. Under Dr. Trujillo’s mentorship, Shawn’s interest in science was fueled and his passion for research cultivated. Shawn wants to follow the steps of his mentor and put his efforts into increasing diversity in neuroscience by supporting underrepresented students with tools to pursue graduate studies. Shawn remembers, “I was given a very simple experiment to begin with [in Dr. Trujillo’s lab] and since then I have been chasing that high of succeeding on an experiment, and when experiments do not work out then the fun begins to figure out why that is.”

Inspired by his master’s work,  Shawn moved on to pursue his graduate studies in Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. During his Ph.D Shawn investigated how the social environment affects response to the opioid, morphine, in adolescent mice. The Ph.D. was not an easy road and there were times when his frustration was so high he felt like quitting. At times, he lost his confidence. Nevertheless, this made Shawn want to work harder and finish the project, be a more deliberate scientist, and eventually publish his work in respectable peer-reviewed journals.

A different type of frustrating experience repeatedly occurred for Shawn: people in the corridors would stop him to ask if he was entitled to be in the building. Searching for the support he needed, Shawn joined SPINES, a group of graduate students and postdocs from underrepresented populations, creating avenues of support and advocacy for minority trainees. He was a fellow of the SfN Neuroscience Scholars Program (NSP) and he is also part of BRAINS, a group providing support and guidance for senior postdocs and junior faculty. Shawn pursued these opportunities to help him feel represented, give him a peer network, and receive input from senior faculty members about career advancements. “Being the only black person made me feel like I was on an island during my scientific career and I don’t want this to happen to other students.”

Being the only black person made me feel like I was on an island during my scientific career and I don’t want this to happen to other students.”

After his Ph.D. work, Shawn decided to pursue a postdoc at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), in the lab of Dr. Seema Bhatnagar working on stress and addiction. At CHOP, he became co-chair of the Diversity Committee of the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council at Penn. In this role, he supported the under-represented trainee population at CHOP/Penn at all levels by working with others to develop programs to help undergraduate, graduate students, and postdocs navigate the academic environment and most importantly provide a platform where they could feel represented.  In this regard, Shawn says: “A lack of support and a feeling of belonging is one of the primary reasons that under-represented students leave science. In the diversity committee, our goal was to address this and create that sense of belonging at Penn.”

“Science is hard, and you have to be introspective, but also, you can accomplish things you never thought you could!

During his postdoc, Shawn realized that he wanted to focus on his career and sought out opportunities at primarily teaching institutions. “It makes me happy to teach students and be able to support them to their next career level.” Shawn knows that being an undergraduate student can be stressful, and students may not always find mentors that take the time to guide newcomers through research and its hardship. This is the reason why Shawn would like to give students the mentorship that they need to stay motivated.

During his postdoc, Shawn realized that he wanted to focus on his career and sought out opportunities at primarily teaching institutions. “It makes me happy to teach students and be able to support them to their next career level.” Shawn knows that being an undergraduate student can be stressful, and students may not always find mentors that take the time to guide newcomers through research and its hardship. This is the reason why Shawn would like to give students the mentorship that they need to stay motivated.

At Chico, Shawn found not only the place where his passion for teaching can thrive but also a cross-cultural environment where he can keep supporting underrepresented minorities. To his students, he says: “Science is hard, and you have to be introspective, but also, you can accomplish things you never thought you could!”

Shawn Bates, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at California State University, Chico.


by Giulia Zanni

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