Assistant Professor of Psychology
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Keep your eye on your personal goal. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the goal that others have for you. Make sure that the steps that you’re taking in your life and your career are achieving the goals that you want for yourself.”
Although it can sometimes be hard to admit, being a scientist is stressful. Dr. Shivon Robinson, an assistant professor of psychology at Williams College, certainly knows this. Her research focuses on how stress interacts with brain regions involved in reward processing. By studying stress and its effects on behavior in rodents, Shivon has also gained insight into how to deal with the stresses that are ever-present in her own career.
Shivon’s earliest science memory is an activity from an after-school program when she was in second grade. Students used the proportions of M&M colors to learn about fractions. “I was like, ‘This is amazing! Is science just eating candy? I’ll do this all the time!’” says Shivon. Unfortunately for Shivon (and for all of us), her later experiences with science did not usually involve eating candy, but she enjoyed them just the same. In high school, Shivon gravitated towards science because of its objectivity. The clear rules in science provided her with a way to conquer the stresses and pressures she felt to do well in school.
As an undergraduate at Williams College, Shivon first thought she wanted to be a psychiatrist. This desire drew her to Dr. Betty Zimmerberg, whose lab used rats to understand the neural mechanisms underlying behavioral dysfunctions. For her senior thesis, Shivon investigated the effects of early-life social enrichment on later-life cognitive abilities. She loved that Dr. Zimmerberg gave her the freedom and agency to pursue whatever line of research she wanted. “You can think of what question you’re interested in, and you can actually see how your manipulation is affecting the behavior of these animals,” she says. This experience changed Shivon’s mind about medical school. By the end of college, Shivon knew that she wanted to be a researcher so that she could discover new treatments, instead of being a medical doctor limited to working with what was already available.
“You can think of what question you’re interested in, and you can actually see how your manipulation is affecting the behavior of these animals,”
“What I got out of my failures was being able to view it as a learning experience, and not necessarily as a defect within myself”
As a neuroscience PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, Shivon researched pharmacological interventions to prevent maladaptive behaviors caused by stress. She also began to discover the stresses that come with being a scientist, such as the constant pressure to compare oneself to everyone else. Shivon experienced this firsthand when she realized that a project she had been working on for two years wasn’t going anywhere. She remembers feeling panicked about putting so much time into something and not having anything to show for it. Despite feeling overwhelmed by this setback at the time, Shivon is now thankful for stressful experiences. “What I got out of my failures was being able to view it as a learning experience, and not necessarily as a defect within myself,” she says. Graduate school also taught her how important (and normal!) it is to ask for help. Shivon says that her thesis advisor, Dr. Irwin Lucki, gave her the confidence and the push to be the best that she could be. “He helped me to see that it’s never a straight path. There’s always some winding to it. And you will never know how somebody else’s path was winding,” she says.
As a teaching-focused postdoctoral fellow (also at the University of Pennsylvania), Shivon studied the neural effects of early-life drug exposure, while also teaching courses at Delaware County Community College and Rutgers University-Camden. Under the mentorship of Dr. Julie Blendy, Shivon researched the effects of opioid exposure and withdrawal symptoms in neonatal mice. Having a female advisor helped Shivon navigate the difficulties of being a woman in academia. Seeing a tenured woman scientist also encouraged her to persist even when research projects didn’t work out or when she witnessed or faced bias. As a Black woman, Shivon is familiar with the experience of not having anyone in her science classes who looked like her. In college, her peers sometimes made her feel that academic standards were lower for her because of her race. In graduate school, she was sometimes mistaken for a staff member at the animal facility. “I’m serving as a source of representation not only for other Black students or students of color, but for the entire population to see that, yes, there are Black scientists. We exist!” Shivon says.
“I’m serving as a source of representation not only for other Black students or students of color, but for the entire population to see that, yes, there are Black scientists. We exist!”
After finishing her postdoc, Shivon returned to her alma mater, Williams College, as an assistant professor. The positive feeling of being on Williams’ campus again during her faculty interview was enough to pull her back. She now has her own lab where she continues to investigate the long-term effects of early life adversity, and possible interventions. She has also been motivated to give her undergraduate students the same freedom to pursue what they’re interested in that helped her discover her own interest in science research. As an example, one of her students is investigating how long-term opioid withdrawal symptoms can affect sleep, a topic Shivon hadn’t explored in the past.
Shivon grew to love teaching in graduate school. Through her experiences with outreach programs and mentoring, Shivon learned she enjoyed the challenge of conveying complex ideas to different audiences. She also appreciates the unexpected questions that come from students and that force her to think outside the box. Currently, she teaches a class called “The Resilient Mind,” which combines empirical studies with pop culture and self-help books to understand psychological resilience. The class is a small seminar, in which students choose the assignments and lead the discussion. It also draws psychology majors, who offer a different perspective than Shivon has from her neuroscience training. Shivon says that her students encourage her to reconsider how she conceptualizes certain topics, such as psychological development or mental health. Giving students academic freedom, which in turn allows them to bring new ideas to the table, is a dynamic that Shivon promotes in both her research and her teaching. Her experiences have shown her that mentors, colleagues, and students who bring new perspectives and provide professional support can ease the stressors that we all face.
Shivon A. Robinson, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College
by Benjamin Michael Silver