Psychology Professor Julia McQuade hails from Wellesley MA, outside of Boston, and lived there her entire life. She completed her undergraduate degree at Bates College in Maine. She then lived two years in Somerville, Mass. where she worked as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital studying clinical psychology. Following this, she completed her Ph.D. at the Univ. of Vermont. She then spent the last year completing her post-doctoral fellowship at Massachusetts’s General Hospital.
Q: How did begin studying psychology and what made you decide to pursue it?
A: I took AP Psychology in high school and loved it. I felt like it was one of the classes where I really got it, I was good at it and it made sense. So when I got to college I really wanted to take more psychology courses and I’d always liked working with kids. I’d always been a camp counselor, I was a camp counselor for seven years and I had always babysat and done things like that when I was younger. So when I got to college I took developmental psychology and I really loved it. It was about kids, which is the population I was really interested in, and I really liked understanding how they change over time and thinking about how we could help kids who were struggling. So I got into the field really early on, and then it was developmental psychology that really got me hooked.
Then when I was about to graduate I needed to find a job and I sort of fell into a research position in clinical psychology, which is studying abnormal populations and people who are really struggling. I realized that I really responded to looking at and trying to help kids who were struggling not just kids more generally. That made me realize that I really wanted to be a clinical psychologist because I wanted to learn how to do therapy, I wanted to do research where we could figure out why are certain kids struggling, why are other kids not struggling, what are the things we can do to actually help them. So, that’s how I ended up getting into the field.
Q: Why did you decide to teach at Amherst?
A: Probably a lot because I went to Bates College. I think there is something really special about small liberal arts colleges. I think people who go to them know that. Last year I wasn’t teaching at all because most of my time was spent doing research and doing direct clinical work with kids, and I missed teaching a lot. It was one of my favorite things that I did as a graduate student. I realized because I missed it so much, it meant that it probably was what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t really want to go back to a university where my job would be to mostly do research and to do as little as possible in terms of teaching and working with students. You know, universities are really about producing research and big lectures. But, that wasn’t the education I got and I didn’t want to teach that way. I wanted to go back to a school where I would actually be able to work closely with students, where they could be involved in my research, where that would be important, and supported and where I had kids who wanted to get involved in that way. So I specifically looked for a job in a small liberal arts college.
Q: What is you research on and how did you become interested in it?
A: I study the clinical population of students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which are kids who have trouble with attention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. I’m interested in why they tend to struggle so much socially. We know that they tend to be really rejected by peers and have a lot of trouble making friends. We know that kids who are rejected by peers are at really high risk for negative adjustment and depression and all these things. They’ve done a lot of work to try and figure out how can we help out kids with ADHD who have social problems, how can we treat it. [But] none of our treatments work very well. So we have a lot of trouble helping those kids do better socially. We can get them to do better academically, with their behavior, but the social piece is still hard. And I think the social piece is so important. If you struggle socially its very difficult. I’m really interested in trying to understand why do kids with ADHD have so much trouble socially because if we can really understand why then maybe we can figure out what we need to do to treat it. Because what we have right now isn’t working, so there must be something we’re missing. I’m very interested in this sort of phenomenon where kids with ADHD seem to have very poor insight into how they’re doing. It’s called a positive bias. So you ask them “how are you doing socially, do you have friends, do people like you?” And they say “Yes, lots of people like me, I have lots and lots of friends, I do great socially.” And you ask other people or do other measures, and they’re not doing well. So there is some disconnect where kids with ADHD don’t seem to recognize that they’re having a hard time. If we can’t recognize that we’re having a hard time, then it’s hard to change, hard to improve, or do things differently. We don’t really know why kids with ADHD have this bias, but we know that it has some pretty negative consequences. I’m interested in trying to understand how does that develop, and again, if we know how that develops then maybe we can figure out how to treat it.
Q: What are you currently working on? Are you currently working on publishing anything, or have you published anything before?
A: Right now I am working on a really interesting paper that finds that this positive bias in childhood in kids with ADHD actually predicts greater risk taking behavior in young adulthood. So, kids who have a positive bias as children, over time what we see is that those are the kids who are more likely to engage in reckless driving behaviors and reckless sexual behaviors. We think maybe what’s going on is that if you have poor insight and never really develop a way to self-monitor and understand how your behavior effects other people or your not good at getting feedback, that that can, when we get to young adulthood, when things like making sexual choices and choices about how to drive or drink or other things, that it may be really impairing for those kids because they don’t have the same insight or ability to understand that we would want them to have. So, that’s one of the more recent papers I’m working on. One of my honors theses students is also looking at how positive bias relates to physical and relational aggression. So, if kids with positive bias have higher rates of aggression than kids without.
[…] I’m planning on starting up a new child study in the spring that will run for the next couple of years where I’ll be collecting new data looking at children with ADHD and without ADHD and positive bias and adjustment and these sorts of things.
Q: What classes are you teaching this semester? What classes are you teaching next semester? What are they about?
A: I’m teaching abnormal psychology which is the crash course in all the different psychological disorders, what we think cause them, what are the most affective treatments. I’m also teaching a seminar on child and adolescent clinical psychology, so it’s looking specifically in-depth at clinical presentations in childhood and what are the treatment options we have. Next semester I am going to teach abnormal again, and I’m going to teach statistics.
Q: What aspects of Amherst do you like so far?
A: I love the students. I think the students are great. They ask really interesting and exciting questions in my classes. They ask questions sometimes that I never would have thought of, which I think is my favorite thing when you’re doing work with students and they help you see things that you didn’t even think about. Both of my honors thesis students that I’m working with are also like that. They are asking such creative, interesting questions. I love being in a small campus community where I can go to the football games, or the soccer games or go see some of the sporting events, or some of the singing events and other things like that. So, it’s more than just coming to work and coming home and not really being a part of things outside [the classroom]. I think those are my favorite things.
Q: What do you hope to contribute to Amherst during your time here?
A: That’s a big question! I think that I’m really interested in getting students actively involved in my research and having a really productive, active research lab where students really have a chance to see what it’s like to do research, learn those skills, think about if they want to apply for graduate school or just more generally. I would love to get involved in being a faculty liaison to a sporting team, or to just get involved in some of the other groups on campus. I know that there are some students who are involved in greater awareness around mental health and psychological health and I would love to get involved in that as well. Also, we are starting a psychology club so I’m going to be heading that up.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I love to run. I really love hanging out with my family and my friends. Being from New England my whole life, I have a lot of people in this general area. I really like to spend time with them. I still have a lot of really close friends from Bates College. I really like to cook. I’m vegetarian, so I cook up some very interesting tofu meals from time to time