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Prof. Wright followed winding path to psychology and Brandeis

Published: September 12, 2014
Section: Features, Top Stories

This year marks Professor Ellen J. Wright’s seventh year as a professor at Brandeis University. She serves as assistant professor of psychology at Brandeis University, with an expertise in areas such as clinical psychology, depression, gender, development and emotional regulation. Wright, in an interview with The Hoot, discussed her life journey and her fields of expertise in psychology.

Having graduated from the University of Iowa with an undergraduate degree in biology and three minors in chemistry, math and English, Wright originally aspired to become a veterinarian. She was well on her way to realizing her dream until working at a vet clinic prompted her to change the focus of her career. “After working at the clinic, I realized that I couldn’t stand euthanizing animals,” she explained. Instead, she stopped in her tracks and turned to what she was skilled at: explaining complicated matters to people. She began her career as a science teacher at a middle school in Colorado Springs, where she continued teaching for seven years.

Alongside her teaching position, she took psychology classes during various summer vacations. The first time she took a psychology class was her senior year of college, when she became interested in psychology but thought that “it was too late to do anything about it.”

Wright looked back on how the classes had changed her views: “Psychology intrigued me. And eventually I decided that I was more interested in clinical science and understanding how to help people than I was in teaching photosynthesis,” she said.

Wright enrolled in the University of Iowa postdoctorate program for psychology where she undertook research with Mike O’Hara on postpartum depression. A major part of the research was devoted to studying how postpartum depression differed from other forms of depression. Branching out from O’Hara’s research, Wright’s personal research explored the specific gender differences that can explain why women are twice as prone to depression as men are. Her experience of teaching at a middle school prompted her to pursue her research from a developmental standpoint as well; she studied the reason why the risk for depression in women increases around puberty.

Wright’s rich experience throughout the years, from being a middle school teacher and partaking in renowned research, brought her a new perspective on life. She focused on where her true passions lay, which she ultimately identified as research, but most strongly, teaching. Teaching enabled her to “turn over stones and make a small difference,” with the knowledge that she was bringing about a positive and productive change in the world.

Before coming to Brandeis, she taught at Simmons College, where she studied emotional regulation and rumination. She partook in depression prevention projects, which were associated with Harvard University.

Brandeis’ prized research and value of excellence in undergraduate teaching brought Wright to Brandeis. She explained that many of the Brandeis faculty and students alike are as passionate about research as much as they are about teaching. As an undergraduate honors research coordinator, she has been helping prepare honors students for their senior research as well as supervising it as well. This fall semester, she teaches PSYC 10A (Introduction to Psychology) and PSYC 32A (Abnormal Psychology).

“An introductory course is my opportunity to attract students who might be interested in the field. Some of the skills that you start to work on in introductory courses can be helpful in whatever major or career you choose to pursue. There are a lot of applications of the knowledge that we teach in psychology in fields such as HSSP, business, marketing, education,” Wright stated.

She said that her classes are opportunities for her to be stimulated by the students, which is what she especially enjoys about her teaching career. “At Brandeis, students are highly motivated and very smart. The high level of motivation is what is stimulating. And teaching here is also a challenge. I don’t enjoy being bored,” she said.

As the interview came to a close, Wright offered a piece of wisdom to all Brandeis students. “Find ways to be present. Life is happening, and it is going by so fast. Try to take some time talking to people and go on silent walks with no technology devices. And remember to focus on what is important to you in life.”