Dr. Katie McAuliffe, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College, was recently awarded the 2020 HBES Early Career Award for her distinguished contributions to the field of evolution and human behavior. To learn more about Katie, her postdoctoral scholar, Dr. Dorsa Amir, interviewed her for HBES.
Dorsa: Academia can sometimes take us down winding paths we couldn’t have seen in advance. Can you tell us a little about the academic journey that led to being a professor of psychology at Boston College?
Katie: Winding path is right! I actually started out interested in cetacean research, briefly toyed with the idea of going to graduate school to study postcolonial literature, applied to Richard Wrangham’s lab to study chimpanzees (sidenote: I never studied chimpanzees) and ended up studying fairness—or lack thereof—across a bunch of animal species before landing on humans. So, I came to psychology through evolutionary biology and anthropology which I think shows that many winding paths can lead to interesting work on human behavior.
Dorsa: I’ve heard rumors that you may or may not include Easter eggs in some of your publications. Can you confirm or deny?
Katie: This is true, but I cannot comment further.
Dorsa: I’m often impressed (and vicariously overwhelmed) by the number of different projects you’re able to successfully juggle at once. What strategies do you use to keep them all organized and balanced?
Katie: Are they all organized and balanced? That’s my first question. But assuming it’s true, one thing that helps is to have projects at different stages; that naturally keeps them organized. More importantly, it helps to have projects that are led by excellent postdocs and graduate students working as a team. My guiding principle has been to build a good team first, and good things grow out of that. I also use a number of apps and platforms to help organize our research. Our lab uses Basecamp to coordinate and communicate, which helps with organization, and I personally use Trello, which is a tool that visualizes projects and deadlines. I am also religious about “strategic planning”, in which I set my goals for the semester and break them down into actionable steps that I fit into my calendar.
Dorsa: I knew I was in Katie McAuliffe’s lab when I first opened up a cabinet and found it absolutely filled with candy. Have you considered contacting Skittles® for a sponsorship?
Katie: Actually, yes. I have contacted them at least once, if not twice, even having gone through a conflict-of-interest phone call. Sadly, they never wrote back.
Dorsa: You’ve done a lot of fieldwork in your career studying both humans and non-humans. Is there a field experience that stands out as particularly memorable?
Katie: My year of fieldwork studying meerkats in the Kalahari was magical. The people there were incredible, and the work itself was fascinating. The meerkat system is great because you can actually see the meerkats. Cetaceans, on the other hand, are harder to see since they’re mostly underwater. Sometimes in studying animal cognition, you’re looking for things that aren’t obvious — like, does this animal have this psychological capacity? And you design experiments around that. But with meerkats, our study was built around a naturalistic and easy-to-observe behavior: teaching. We designed experiments that celebrated their natural behavior, and that made it really exciting. Also, the Kalahari is just beautiful: it’s a gorgeous landscape, you’re out there by yourself, and you’re constantly surrounded by all these different animals living and moving all around you. In addition to the Kalahari I also loved doing fieldwork with kids in Western Uganda. My first trip to Uganda to collaborate with the Kasiisi Project totally reignited my love of developmental psychology.
Dorsa: Katie, you’re a fan of puns. If someone wrote a biography about you, what would the title be?
Katie: Fairness and “Pun”ishment.
Dorsa: How do you stay engaged and excited about projects that can take years to come to fruition as a finished publication?
Katie: It comes back to the team part; I really enjoy working with the people I am working with. And as cheesy as it may be, for me, it’s more about the journey than the destination. I actually like the day-to-day work, so even if a project takes years, it doesn’t really matter to me.
Dorsa: I happen to know you’re particularly fond of label makers. What is the most unnecessary item you’ve labeled?
Katie: Actually, I’d argue that none of my labeling is unnecessary. For instance, I’ve labeled every section of my refrigerator. How else would everyone know where the ketchup goes?
You can learn more about Katie by visiting her website