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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Hip + Urban Girl of the Week: Dr Christie Chung

This week's Hip + Urban Girl is one of my dearest friends. Christie and I were roomies at UofT but life took us in separate directions after graduation. It wasn't until after a decade that I (finally) met up with her in the Bay Area where she now lives. She's all grown up, married and a Psychologist and Professor! Do beauty + brains go together? No pun intended but we think so! Yup, she's got it all (and she's only 34)... say hello to Dr. Christie Chung!

Where do we start with all your credentials... you completed your MA at 22, PhD Defense at 26, Post Doctorate at 28 and Tenure at 33! What's the secret to your success?

I wish I had a secret to share! I have been extremely fortunate to have found a field that I felt passionate about. I started my undergraduate at University of Toronto (UofT) as a pre-med biology major but felt that something was missing academically. Wendy, I don’t know if you remember but I would always read your psychology textbook in our first year! (Hmmmm I'm glad one of us read those text books, haha!) When I started taking psychology in my second year, I realized that my interest was in studying the brain and cognition. I followed my heart and never looked back. I worked hard to attain the knowledge I desired, and along the way came a few degrees and a career that I love!

What is a typical day in the life of Dr. Christie Chung?

That would depend on the time of year. During the academic year (Fall/Spring), I would wake up way-too-early for my liking and drive to Mills College to prepare for a full day of work. Many people think that professors have it easy because they teach for a few hours a week and get the rest of the time to do whatever they like. Not true! My days at work are usually jam-packed with teaching, advising, meetings, and research. I am currently chairing and serving on a few important committees on campus (e.g., Diversity and Social Justice and Strategic Planning Committees) and advising around 35 undergraduate students. I also direct a research lab, Mills Cognition Lab, where my research assistants and I conduct research projects related to memory, aging, weight consciousness, and gender identity. We present and publish our research findings at professional psychology conferences and journals nationwide and internationally.

Mills College is a university for women at the undergraduate level, with graduate programs for men and women. Thus, many social justice activities happen right on campus. I am a faculty advisor to many of these organizations that help raise awareness on pressing social issues. Therefore, some of my evenings are carved out to attend events devoted to this cause and meeting influential people such as social activists, film makers, and politicians (e.g., Oakland Mayor Jean Quan in the photo below). Other evenings are usually spent preparing for lectures and research projects.

Winter and summer breaks are very precious to me, not just because it’s time to recuperate from the craziness of the previous semester, but it’s also time to write up my research publications. I set goals for myself all year round and especially during these periods, because once you become a professor, there is no one setting hard deadlines for your papers anymore! I wanted to submit one of my manuscripts for publication before 2013, so I pushed myself to finish it by December 31, 2012 before going over to a friend’s house for the New Year countdown. I ended up submitting my manuscript at 11pm that evening!

When we think of psych, we usually think of a therapist or "shrink" so tell us more about why you chose a career in academics and your latest research projects.

I am a Cognitive Psychologist with research interests in memory and aging. UofT has one of the best psychology programs in the world, so I am extremely grateful to have learned from many world renowned researchers from a young age. Clinical psychology was a branch that I considered pursuing in my second year, but when I took the class Cognitive Psychology with Dr. Fergus Craik in my third year, I just knew that was what I wanted to do! I was drawn to the research in perception and was deeply fascinated by the information processing model of cognitive functioning. Cognitive psychology started at around the same time as computer science in the 1950’s, and the parallel between the two fields sparked my interest in further exploring how the mind works. In my last year at UofT, I did my thesis on aging and memory with Dr. Lynn Hasher, pioneer of the inhibition theory in aging. My interest in the field grew exponentially during that year. I then decided to pursue my Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University in California with Dr. Leah Light, given the prestige of the school and the cutting-edge research that the Claremont Memory and Aging Project was producing. After completing my Ph.D. in Applied Cognitive Psychology and primarily examining the effect of age on recognition memory from a behavioral perspective, I wanted to learn more about the brain from the neuroscience perspective. That was when I accepted a post-doctoral position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and moved back to the cold (Boston).

I came to Mills College in 2007, after two years as a post-doc at MIT. My main research interest is still in aging and memory, but as a professor, you have the freedom to explore other interesting topics as well. That’s why I love my job! I currently have several ongoing projects that examine the age-related positivity effect in memory (ie. as we grow older, we are more motivated to process positive rather than negative information). I also have projects that examine the effects of age and human agency on flashbulb memory (vivid, personal recollection on hearing about a public event), as well as projects that explore the relations among weight consciousness, gender identity, and cognition. See my lab website or read my summer 2012 Mills Quarterly magazine interview article for more information.

What are the challenges of being a young woman in your field?

I think there are more pros than cons, but I have definitely incurred a few funny incidents. I started teaching as an adjunct professor when I was 24, so indeed, my students made comments about the age and appearance of their professor. I apparently did not age enough when I started interviewing for professorships. For example, I was once publicly mistaken as a student when I arrived for an interview at an university. I found these experiences more amusing than challenging, because once I started teaching and speaking about my professional interests, my age, gender, ethnicity etc. did not matter. Be proud of who you are and let your voice be heard. Discrimination does exist in our society, but we should strive to not be reduced to those stereotypes. One thing I love about being a young woman professor at Mills College is that I can relate to my students very well. I was in their shoes not that long ago!

What has been the pivotal moment in your life?

Can I have two pivotal moments? Well, first, accepting the scholarships from UofT and leaving my home for a new country was definitely life changing. Since I was born in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, the normal path was to pursue my university degrees in the UK. I received the UofT Scholar title in June 1996 and left for UofT 2 months later without regrets!

Another pivotal moment in my life was choosing love over work. I was offered a job as an Assistant Professor from a university in Hong Kong back in 2006. My husband and I had only been dating for a short while then and I was torn as to which path to take: choose the solid job offer or take a chance in love? The answer is quite obvious now – he ended up proposing to me that year and the rest is history.

You have lived all over the world and in such different cities! Hong Kong, Kent (UK), Toronto, Boston, LA and now in the Bay Area - which is your favourite?

That’s a tough question! Every city has its own charm. I love Hong Kong because it is where my family lives and I love the vibrancy of the city itself. The food and shopping is the best I have experienced anywhere else in the world. I was very young when I lived in the UK, but what I remember is that the weather was never too pleasant and the routines at boarding school were rigid. Toronto was fun (especially our first year at UofT) because of its multiculturalism and I really treasured the great academic resources that they offer. I loved the intellectual stimulation and the people I crossed paths with in Boston. I met some of my best friends in Boston even though I was only there for 2 years. Ultimately, however, I would say I love the San Francisco Bay Area the most. The weather is good all year round, not too hot (LA could get scorching hot in the summer), or too cold like Boston or Toronto winters. There is a balanced mix of cultural and entertaining events to choose from, which means you can never run out of fun things to do in the Bay Area. Most importantly, I have built my life and career here and I’m glad to finally be settled in one place!

Describe your style and what are your favourite places to shop?

My style is professional at work and casual on the weekends. On a day with no big commitments, you’ll usually find me in comfortable gym attire. I like good quality clothes but also love a good deal. When I go to Hong Kong to visit my family, I usually bring an empty suitcase with me for my shopping. The most important thing for me in clothing is not the name brand, but the comfort, fit, and quality of the item.

Looking back at your life, do you have any regrets? What would you tell your 20 year old self?

I think mistakes in life shape our present being. I don’t have many big regrets in life, but if I had a chance to redo some things, I would take the opportunity to focus more on helping people in need. My 20’s was spent mostly in school and in several tumultuous relationships, which means my focus was really on myself. As I grow and gain more perspectives on life, I realized how much a young person with a creative mind could contribute to the well-being of our society. I would tell my 20 year old self to follow her heart and believe in herself because motivation and trust could take you much further than you could imagine. Be open-minded and aware of the world around you because you never know what opportunities may come your way, be it something that would benefit your personal growth or the betterment of the society.

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