Inside the Academic Mind: Susan Simonian

Inside the Academic Mind: Susan Simonian


Since 1993, Susan Simonian, professor of psychology, has been inspiring legions of students in her wide-ranging psychology courses. We caught up with Professor Simonian in between her hectic schedule of teaching and work as a clinical psychologist, and learned more about her research with children, her involvement in the College’s new graduate child life program and how she deals with stress.

Where did you grow up? I grew up in a suburb of West Los Angeles. Southern California is really one continuous city, bordered by a beautiful coastline. I love the Pacific Coast, but sure appreciate the warmer East Coast water!

When people find out that you teach psychology, What’s the most common question you get? Especially when they find out I’m a clinical psychologist, they automatically think I’m analyzing their behavior. I can be in a relaxed social situation and people will ask me questions about what I think about their behavior, or, more frequently, the behavior of their partner. Really, you don’t want me to answer these questions.

I politely tell them that clinical science is a more complex and in-depth practice than superficial questions and answers in this setting can offer. I also tell them that a friendship relationship is very, very different from a therapeutic relationship, and I do not blur that boundary.

Tell us your path to a career in psychology. I began my undergraduate career as a biology major set on pursuing medical school. I wanted a career in academic medicine, and I minored in psychology so as to gain experience in research methodology and statistics. I took a course in abnormal psychology and was totally fascinated with the study of psychopathology. I did my senior honors thesis at a university hospital’s pediatric oncology unit. My faculty mentor was an amazing psychologist, who asked me why I was pursuing medical school versus a doctoral program in clinical psychology. She was the first person who helped me to see the role of psychologists in multidisciplinary health care teams, and it was a role I really liked.

Why have you focused your research on the psychology of children? If we consider development across the lifespan, many of the experiences and choices made during childhood and adolescence help to set the foundation for our adult health and mental health. It made sense to work with individuals during these formative years – before issues (e.g., anxiety, obesity, substance abuse) grow and compound.

What have you learned about the effects of chronic illness on children and families? A great deal of respect for the children and families who face these stressors on a daily basis. The resilience of these children astounds me, and it’s a privilege to work with these families. It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the Master of Science in Child Life program we’re developing here at the College. Child life specialists are specially trained professionals who work with children and families with chronic or episodic health care needs. Like pediatric psychologists, child life specialists have a strong background in child and family development, pediatric illness and psychological coping mechanisms. These professionals are often the primary members of pediatric multidisciplinary teams who provide emotional support for families facing medically challenging events. I’m thrilled to be the interim director working on the development of this important graduate program.

Abnormal psychology is A favorite class for students. Why do you enjoy teaching it? I think the most interesting aspect of psychopathology is that that there is a fine line between mental health and mental illness. It’s really an issue of quantitative versus qualitative differences in behavior. Many behaviors are normal until you exhibit higher levels of that behavior in terms of duration, intensity and frequency. For example, all of us experience anxiety, but we do not all have an anxiety disorder. It’s when the anxiety is frequent and intense and these symptoms are of a longer duration that it becomes a mental health issue.

Speaking of Anxiety, What’s the most stressful part of your job? Honestly, it’s not a frequent occurrence, but I get frustrated with students who aren’t excited to learn. Intellectual laziness to me is a great waste of potential.

So then, how do you blow off steam? Exercise, particularly running. I can put in some long miles on a particularly stressful day!

What’s your most prized possession in your office? Definitely family photos. Academically, I’m also proud of my Diplomate Diploma and American Psychological Association fellow and outstanding service awards.

If your life had a soundtrack, What Would be on it? It would be quite an eclectic mix from Tchaikovsky to the Grateful Dead. Each musical genre reminds me of a different time in life or a different place I have visited.

What’s your favorite book and movie of all time? It’s hard to pick just one favorite book. Two of my favorites are Mutant Message Down Under and The Odyssey. They may seem like very different books, but both detail the journey of individuals through the intricacies of life; and both reveal great learning about self and world.

I love movies and even teach a psychology in film class every so often. Every movie has a message about life and learning; so again, it’s very hard to pick just one.

You’ve now taught at the college for 20 years. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen on campus in that time? I appreciate that we’ve embraced a focus on science without losing a commitment to a liberal arts education.