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Northwestern Honors IPR Health Psychologists

Chen and Miller discuss their distinguished career trajectories at ceremony

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Edith Chen and Greg Miller
IPR health psychologists Edith Chen and Greg Miller were honored for their research, teaching, and mentoring.

Internationally renowned IPR health psychologists Edith Chen and Greg Miller, partners in both research and life, traced the influences on their respective and overlapping career paths at the investiture ceremony for their endowed chairs on November 28 at Northwestern University.

These chairs “are how we recognize our most distinguished faculty,” said Adrian Randolph, dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, in welcoming the nearly 100 Northwestern faculty, staff, students, and family members in attendance.

Chen received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Chair, and Miller, the Louis W. Menk Chair, both of which are in Weinberg College’s Department of Psychology.

As they each sketched the trajectory of their interdisciplinary careers, both recalled experiencing a career epiphany their junior year of college.

At Harvard, Chen took her first psychology class with Richard McNally, a specialist in anxiety disorders, and got “hooked.”

“I had no idea that the study of people could actually be a science,” she said.

At UCLA in 1991, Miller was reeling from the violence that had erupted in Los Angeles following the Rodney King beating. Sitting in psychology class in the days following the aftermath, he recalled the professor, Hector Myers, ripping up the syllabus, exclaiming that they would use community psychology to understand what had happened. After that semester, Miller was also “hooked.” 

“I wanted to address real-world problems by pulling together different social science disciplines and bridge the gap between those disciplines to make a difference,” he said.

Each then enrolled at UCLA for their doctoral program in psychology, where they met on their very first day—and their lives have been entwined ever since.

Following a “fabulous” four years at UCLA, the couple, just married, moved to the Pittsburgh for their postdoctoral fellowships. Chen was studying how the socioeconomic (SES) gradient affects health under Karen Matthews, a “giant” of health psychology, at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Miller was working with one of his “research heroes” Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University on examining how chronic stressors lead to long-term health problems. They then spent three years at Washington University in St. Louis as assistant professors, before moving to the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver in 2003.

IPR economist and SESP Dean David Figlio (far
left) and biological anthropologist Thomas McDade 
celebrate with Edith Chen and Greg Miller.

It was at UBC that the two produced one of their most important collaborations, their “amazing son,” Jonah. His birth also led to their research partnership because, as Chen said, once they realized they could work well together as parents, why not as researchers?

And so, the two started to map out connections from the social context of neighborhoods to interpersonal dynamics to individual immune cells and eventually gene function. Their work on the “psychobiology of socioeconomic status” continues and crisscrosses disparate disciplines such as psychology, immunology, public health, and medicine. 

After nine years in Canada, “we made the best professional decision of our lives,” Chen said. They moved to Northwestern, attracted by its “true commitment to interdisciplinarity,” and “finally found a home for the quirky research that we do that doesn’t fit into any traditional psychology circles.”

They also pointed to IPR’s leading role in bringing them here through the persistent efforts of its faculty in Cells to Society: The Center on Social Disparities and Health. Once here, they found “a group of deeply curious and thoughtful scholars who have the utmost respect for disciplines outside of their own, which leads to so many energizing and thought-provoking conversations,” Chen said. 

At each step along the way to becoming the highly-cited, interdisciplinary researchers they are today, they found many who inspired, guided, and mentored them. As Miller noted, “I apologize if this starts to sound like an Academy Awards thank-you list, but there have been so many who have made such a difference in our lives.”  

Chen and Miller also thanked the administration at Northwestern for supporting interdisciplinary research and collaboration from the top down, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and its Department of Psychology. They also recognized all of “the dedicated and committed staff and students who bring positive energy to our research and our lab,” Miller said. “We could not do half the work we do without them.”

“Who would have thought 25 years ago that we would be up here together celebrating our work with so many good friends, collaborators, and family?” Miller said.

Edith Chen holds the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Chair in Psychology. Greg Miller holds the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology. They are both IPR fellows and co-direct the Foundations of Health Research Center.

Photo credit: Genie Lemieux

Published: January 26, 2018.