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Women Scientist Profiles

Tara M. Chaplin, Ph.D.

Tara M. Chaplin, Ph.D.

As part of her research on the role of family in adolescent development, Tara Chaplin, Ph.D, leads a parenting mindfully study. The study aims to reduce parents’ stress and improve parent-child relationships.

Dr. Chaplin received a Ph.D. in child-clinical psychology from Penn State University and completed post-doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania. She then moved to Yale University, where she completed one year as a post-doctoral associate, two years as an Associate Research Scientist, and, in 2009, was promoted to Assistant Professor of Psychiatry. She joined the faculty at George Mason University in 2013 as an Assistant Professor of Psychology.

In addition to her mindfulness intervention for parents of adolescents, Dr. Chaplin examines gender differences in emotion and the implications for the development and prevention of substance abuse and depression. Her findings help to understand sex differences in psychological disorders, with women at greater risk for depression/anxiety and men at greater risk for alcohol use disorders.

Dr. Chaplin has published numerous peer-reviewed articles, authored several book chapters, and obtained an NIH Mentored Research Scientist Development Award to support her independent research.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

I am fortunate to have had excellent mentors, such as Dr. Pamela Cole at Penn State and Dr. Jane Gillham at the University of Pennsylvania, who encouraged and supported me. They showed me by example how to navigate a successful scientific career as a woman.

I always loved research, but I credit my mentors with helping me realize my dream of becoming a scientist. They believed in me and told me that I could really make it happen.

At Yale, Dr. Rajita Sinha was a great inspiration to me. She was doing cutting-edge science and wasn’t afraid to get into the thick of things. She had an idea and she pursued it. I’ve struggled to learn that confidence as a female scientist. I have tried to apply what I’ve learned from my own mentors to my mentoring of my female graduate students. It has been rewarding to pass on skills to them.

What are some of the challenges to being a female scientist?

Just being a scientist is challenging with all of the different hats you have to wear, from researcher to supervisor to businesswoman. The challenge for female scientists is especially real.  

One challenge for me has to do with confidence. I find sometimes that I will be in a meeting full of other scientists—male scientists, and I’ll have an idea. But, rather than sharing it, I’ll question myself and think it through more. Then one of the male scientists will speak up with the idea that I had.

I think this is a common struggle for women in business and in science. There is this socialization of women. We hold back what we want to say; we watch out for others’ feelings. We’re careful in what we say. But I’m learning to speak up, to go for the big ideas and the big grants.

It can also be a challenge to balance family life and work. Men don’t always feel that same pressure. I worry constantly about my son and how he’s doing. That can take a toll. When I initially pursued my career, I had this idea that becoming a professor meant working 60 hours a week. I thought to myself: How could I do that and have a family too? But the good news is that most people do not have to work 60 hours a week. If you’re really focused and don’t overcommit, you can work a normal work week and still have time for your family.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your career?

I love the science. I love when I can have an idea, conduct a study, and discover something interesting. I’m interested in emotions. When I first started out in the field, many researchers didn’t think much about emotion. People would actually laugh at the idea of emotions being related to depression. I believe that, with my finding that emotions are central to psychological disorders, I’ve contributed something significant to the field.

What do you do outside the lab?

I hang out with my son and play with him. He’s a preschooler, so I don’t get much alone time, but when I do I like to read and work out.

What is a career achievement of which you are most proud?

The moment I will always remember is when I was awarded my Mentored Research Science Award. I saw the score and read the reviews, and I knew from that that I would be funded. The process was amazing. I had never thought I could be a cutting-edge, real scientist. This validated my dream and changed the course of my career.

Has the trajectory of your career changed over time?

When I began my career, I was a bit intimidated about how hard it would be to be a professor. I didn’t think I would do independent research; instead, I thought I would work under someone. Now, I have a real passion to contribute to the field, to become more serious in my pursuits. I know my goals are attainable.

Recently, my research interests have grown to include brain development and neural arousal, integrating FMRI and neuroscience with my work on adolescent substance use and mindfulness interventions.

If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you have?

If I weren’t a psychologist, I would probably be a physicist or mathematician. I love to write, too, so perhaps I would be an author.

This page last updated: April 14, 2016

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