Research Heroes: Ellen Peters

peters

This week’s Research Hero is Prof. Ellen Peters. Prof. Peters received her M.S. and Ph.D. from the Department of Psychology, University of Oregon in 1994 and 1998, respectively. She is currently a professor in the Psychology Department at The Ohio State University. She works extensively with the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration to advance the science of human decision making. Prof. Peters’ research focuses on how affective, intuitive, and deliberative processes help people to make decisions in an increasingly complex world. She studies numeracy and number processing, how affect and emotion influence information processing and decisions, and how information processing and decision making change across the adult life span. Prof. Peters has received over 10 academic awards, been on the editorial board of various academic journals, published numerous articles and continues to be one of the experts in medical decision making. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… how much fun research can be. It is serious business in some ways, but the process of discovering something new about the human mind is simply fascinating. What we study is so much more complex than other “hard” sciences that it continues to amaze me that we can and do find some order in the chaos.

I most admire academically… I most admire people who combine great scientific rigor with a desire (and actions) to do some good in the world because we only get one life time to try to make a difference.  There are many examples including Paul Slovic, Elke Weber, Baruch Fischhoff, Eric Johnson, Laura Carstensen, Karen Emmons, and countless others (my apologies if I forgot to name you).

The best research project I have worked on during my career… is about something we called evaluative categories and how they influence judgments and choices about health insurance plans and hospitals. It started off as a topic that looked really boring (sorry Judy Hibbard!); it ended up being a great blend of basic and applied research. Although it’s among my favorite projects, it took the longest to publish!

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… I’ve learned something from all of them.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… This experience is my most memorable but also the saddest. It also taught me a lot about the research process. We were doing a study for HCFA (Medicare) with older adults subjects.  I was doing cognitive interviews with some materials in a senior center. One of my participants was having some surprising difficulty with a relatively easy task. As we talked about it, she suddenly broke down crying.  It turned out that her husband had died about a year ago and he had always made these kinds of insurance and other money decisions for them. What I thought was a simply comprehension task was filled with grief and powerful narrative for her. The “decision” she faced was completely different from the one that I thought I had given her.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… I think I’ve told them!

A research project I wish I had done… Any time I have wanted to do a research project, I have done it. We’ve gone to Africa and Peru, worked with older adults and younger, and have studied theoretical topics from affect and emotion to numeracy and applied topics from health-plan choices to donation behaviors to climate change.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…Writing fiction or running a restaurant with my husband.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… Be relevant. Develop theory because this is what is needed. At the same time, the theory needs to matter to “something that matters.”

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Pay attention to opportunities and take some risks.  Whether the opportunities you find actually benefit you is probabilistic (just like everything else in life), but taking a chance is often worth it.

Do what you enjoy or feel is important to society, hopefully both.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get to enjoy doing most of it. I’ve been really lucky.

It’s good to have your own money – spend time writing and rewriting grant proposals.

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