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Inaugural holders of a new University title—the endowed assistant professor—define their interests
Among the innovations established by the recently completed $1.6 billion Light the World campaign were 12 endowed professorships reserved for assistant professors. Unlike most academic chairs, which honor high-achieving senior faculty, these positions, appointed by the University president on the recommendation of the provost, recognize emerging academic stars and provide funding to support their research projects. The position is held until the faculty member is (or is not) awarded promotion to associate professor and tenure.
Endowed professorships have a long history in this country. The Hollis Professorship of Divinity, the oldest endowed chair in North America, was established at Harvard in 1721 by an English merchant (among its perks is the right to graze a cow in Harvard Yard). The named assistant professorship, a more recent invention, has been established at such universities as Brown, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania for the purpose of attracting exceptional young faculty and anchoring them, the better to fend off poaching efforts by competitors.
At Boston College between 2006 and 2016, the count of tenured and tenure-track faculty grew by 143, to a total of 782 full, associate, and assistant professors. Included in this figure are 67 additional assistant professorships (for a total of 214). In their own words, the first six endowed assistant professors—six positions remain to be awarded—describe their interests.
Cooney Family Assistant Professor
Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Ph.D.: University of California, Berkeley
Representative publication: “Between Providence and Risk: Odd Fellows, Benevolence and the Social Limits of Actuarial Science, 1820s–1880s,” Past & Present (February 2015)
A Michigan native, Ismay arrived at Boston College in 2013. She is the past recipient of a Mellon Fellowship and an Anglo-American Fellowship at Cambridge University. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she served five years at sea with two tours in the Persian Gulf, as an officer of the deck on a destroyer and an aircraft carrier.
“I’m interested in questions of social responsibility, in particular the question of who owes what to whom in a society, and why. My focus is Britain in the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution was shifting the economic base from agriculture to manufacturing and triggering a large migration of people from rural areas to cities like Manchester and Liverpool. This massive movement of people whose understanding of their rights and responsibilities had been parish-based—where the rich owed charity to the poor, and the poor owed the rich hard work and deference—threw the well-established social network into disarray. To understand how people in that era created new forms of reciprocity, I study mutual aid organizations like the Odd Fellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters, so-called friendly societies that by the 1870s had four million members. They were trying to figure how to provide a safety net in a world where the needy were no longer one’s neighbors, grappling with the problem of how do you trust strangers? It’s an important issue today, and not only because of immigration. Modern societies are so complex; being among strangers is the norm.”
White Family Assistant Professor
Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Ph.D.: Cornell University
Representative publication: Dangerous Trade—Arms Exports, Human Rights, and International Reputation, Columbia University Press (2015)
Before coming to Boston College in 2010, Erickson, a native of Minnesota, was a postdoctoral research fellow at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. In 2015 she received a Catalytic Research Grant from the International Studies Association. For the 2016–17 academic year, she is a Nuclear Security Faculty Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. In July 2016, Boston College promoted her to associate professor with tenure.
“I study the international politics of weapons. My last project was on the UN Arms Trade Treaty of 2014 and agreements by other international institutions that seek to establish rules to guide how countries conduct their conventional arms trade. These rules are meant to stop weapons shipments to countries that would undermine peace or use them to commit human rights violations. The term is ‘humanitarian arms export controls.’ Why, despite decades of rejecting cooperation over arms export controls, did countries change their minds? We don’t necessarily think of cooperation as the default in international politics. And yet it’s happened on this issue since the end of the Cold War, and in particular since 2000.
My current project starts with the observation that every time we get a major shift in weapons technology—from the atomic bomb at the end of World War II to the emergence of cyber weapons and drone technologies today—it prompts debates about what is legal, what is moral, what is politically savvy, what is militarily effective, and who gets to decide. I’m looking at contemporary debates, as well as two historical examples, beginning with World War I, when countries debated whether to ban both poison gas and submarines as ‘inhumane’ weapons.”
Gianinno Family Assistant Professor
Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Ph.D.: University of New Hampshire
Representative publication: “Posterior Insular Cortex is Necessary for Conditioned Inhibition of Fear” (with Allison Foilb, Johanna Flyer-Adams, and Steven Maier), Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (August 2016)
A Connecticut native, Christianson joined Boston College in 2013, following seven years as a research associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Center for Neuroscience. His research has received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and the Eric and Irene Simon Foundation.
“I am a neuroscientist, and my aim is to identify connections between biological processes and behaviors. With diseases such as autism and schizophrenia in mind, I look at the brain mechanisms that permit us to control our emotional responses—determining when it’s appropriate to be afraid, when to feel safe—and to identify emotions in others. Studying rats, whose brains are similar on a lot of levels to humans’, my lab asks, How is it that one animal is able to detect that another has experienced something stressful?
We focus on the brain area called the insular cortex, which is just above the ear. It receives input from all our senses and is connected to structures such as the amygdala that tell us how to react to stimuli: Is a situation safe or not?
We seek to link characteristics of an individual cell’s ‘action potentials’—the neural impulses that are fundamental to cellular communication in the brain—to sophisticated behaviors and decisions, and our lab is a melting pot of technologies and disciplines. We have a biochemistry bench, we use genetic tools that allow us to interrogate specific populations of neurons, and we employ a range of behavioral and pharmacological approaches. This integrated methodology is reflected in our students, whose majors include psychology, biology, biochemistry, and physics.”
David and Pamela Donohue Assistant Professor
Boston College Law School
JD: Yale University
Representative publication: “Trusts No More—Rethinking the Regulation of Retirement Savings in the United States,” Brigham Young University Law Review (Summer 2016)
Shnitser is a graduate of Stanford University, and she served as editor-in-chief of the Yale Journal on Regulation at Yale Law School. After a stint at a law firm in New York, she returned to New Haven as an associate research scholar and as the executive director of the Yale Center for the Study of Corporate Law. Shnitser came to Boston College in 2014.
“I’m interested in retirement security and the legal institutions that support it. We have a federal law in the United States—the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974—that governs how private sector pension plans are structured and funded. There is no such overarching regime for the public sector. You basically have 50 different sets of rules across the states. That struck me as a really fruitful area for empirical research. I did a study of the governance mechanisms for more than 100 public pension plans. For example, how is the annual contribution to the plan determined? Is the amount set in statute or does the statute delegate control to a pension system board? It turned out delegation was associated with better funding discipline.
I’m working on a project now that looks at how states and municipalities approach retiree health benefits. In general, we’re seeing a period of experimentation in this country at the state and local level. Whereas employers have been the traditional intermediaries in setting up retirement plans for workers, a number of states—including California and Illinois—are in the process of setting up state-administered plans for private sector workers. My hope is that new developments will draw on and contribute to research on plan design and governance.”
Diane Harkins Coughlin and Christopher J. Coughlin Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor
Carroll School of Management
Ph.D.: University of Pittsburgh
Representative publication: “Men and the Middle—Gender Differences in Dyadic Compromise Effects” (with Cait Lamberton), Journal of Consumer Research (October 2016)
Bulgarian-born Nikolova came to the United States alone when she was 18, to attend Ramapo College. She is the recipient of the American Marketing Association’s SIG Rising Star Award and her research has been supported by the Academy of Marketing Science. She joined the Carroll School in 2014.
“Most consumer behavior research has focused on individual decision-making. I’m interested in joint decision-making. My dissertation examined how couples make decisions that involve an element of self-control—say, managing their finances. People expect that if one partner has strong self-control, the pair will make more disciplined decisions. But we found that ‘mixed’ couples, in which one partner has demonstrably low self-control, while the other is highly disciplined, are as bad at decision-making as pairs in which both parties possess the trait of poor self-control. It turns out the more-disciplined individual is willing to agree with his or her partner for the sake of long-term harmony.
I’ve also looked at decision-making in pairs with various gender compositions. It’s been well-documented that solo consumers tend to select a middle option when given a set of choices—middle price, middle safety—when shopping for a car, for instance. In my research, I demonstrated that two women also exhibit this tendency, as do mixed-gender pairs. When two men make a decision jointly, however, they choose extreme options more often than any pair or any individual. I have started by studying the smallest group possible, two. But my long-term plan is to explore the decision process in bigger groups—groups of friends, management teams, faculty committees.”
Counseling, developmental, and educational psychology
Buehler Assistant Professor
Lynch School of Education
Ph.D.: Northwestern University
Representative publication: “How Students’ Perceptions of the Source of Effort Influence Their Ability Evaluations of Other Students” (with Muenks and Wigfield), Journal of Educational Psychology (April 2016)
Born in Manhattan, Miele studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Columbia University. He subsequently worked at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning and for a New York-based educational software company. He has received funding from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and from the Teagle Foundation, which supports research on liberal arts education. Miele joined Boston College in 2013.
“In my research I examine students’ beliefs about their ability, learning, and motivation, as well as how these beliefs influence their engagement in academic tasks. I primarily study college students, but I’m also interested in the developmental period of late elementary school, between third and fifth grade. In a typical study, we might give students text passages to read or math problems to solve, measure how much effort they are willing to devote to the task, and assess their beliefs about ability.
There has been much research on ‘fixed mindsets’—the belief that intellectual ability is innate and cannot be changed—versus ‘growth mindsets’, which hold that ability can be improved through hard work. Students with a growth mindset exhibit more adaptive and resilient behavior in the face of challenge or failure. In addition to looking at how these mindsets work in students, I have begun to examine how the mindsets of elementary school teachers might affect the ways in which they interact with their students.
I’m also involved in a collaborative grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation, with researchers at five other universities. My role is to determine what motivates students to use certain study habits—self-testing, for instance—that we know are effective.”