Focus on Faculty Profiles

Jennifer McDowell

Jennifer McDowell

Jennifer McDowell, a professor of psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, uses advanced imaging technology to better understand problems in brain structure and function that underlie psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I earned a B.A. in psychobiology from Swarthmore College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in experimental psychology from University of California, San Diego. As a full professor in the department of psychology, I run a research laboratory and mentor and teach graduate and undergraduate students. The work we do focuses on understanding problems in brain structure and function that underlie severe psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

In August 2002, I moved here from San Diego, California, with my husband, Dr. Brett Clementz, and our 4-week-old daughter, Taylor.  We both were hired in the psychology department and have been here ever since (and we added a second daughter, Lauren, along the way).

What are your favorite courses and why?

“Biologic Foundations of Behavior”— most graduate students in clinical or counseling fields have to take it, end up taking it with me, and a subset of students   always dread it. When I was new, I felt sorry that they were forced to take the class.  I have evolved.  Now I start by explaining how important this class is, and that it should be required for every student. Sometimes brains work well and sometimes brains do not work well, and everyone exists on that continuum. The more educated a person is about the brain, the better prepared s/he is as a researcher, teacher, clinician, observer and owner. I also teach an Honors undergraduate class called “Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder” that I hope helps students view severe mental illness from a completely different perspective.

What interests you about your field?

My husband and I sometimes joke that our field of research provides job security—because the brain is mysterious. There are a lot of features about healthy brain function that are not yet fully understood. When other “challenges” are involved—like brain dysfunction that results in schizophrenia—the difficulty and complexity are increased even further. I like the challenge, the work, the uncertainty and the fact that none of my days are exactly alike.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?

UGA’s Bio-Imaging Research Center, or BIRC, is unique among universities and contains equipment that allows us to conduct many types of brain imaging studies. The BIRC was not fully functioning until a couple years after we arrived, so the grand opening was years in the making, eagerly anticipated, promising and memorable. Last spring we hosted a two-day conference at UGA with our National Institute of Mental Health grant collaborators from Harvard, the University of Chicago, University of Texas, Southwestern University and Yale.  I was proud to show off our students, staff and facilities.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?

I always watch for examples of how mental illness, neuroscience and brain-related issues arise in daily life, or how they are presented in the media. I ask my students to do the same thing, and we evaluate these cases during class.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I hope they leave challenged to evaluate issues from different perspectives. I want them to think critically and be inspired to write and speak more thoughtfully and eloquently.

Describe your ideal student.

Intelligent, curious, hard-working—and collaborative.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…        

We live near campus and on football game days we have a front row seat for all the activity, which is fun. On campus, many sleep deprived days have been salvaged with a large Earl Grey tea latte from Jittery Joe’s!

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…

My daughters are in middle school (13 and 11 years old) and both are serious soccer players. I spend a lot of time watching soccer all over the state in all sorts of weather. It took me a while to embrace the time and family commitment soccer required, but now I am grateful for this adventure that my girls have chosen. I have such fun watching them play!

Community/civic involvement includes….

I have always volunteered at my kids’ schools, especially the media centers because I love a library!

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

I love to read and participate in a couple of book clubs, but I am non-discriminating and like almost every book I have ever read. The book “Moo” by Jane Smiley made me laugh out loud.  I like anything by John McPhee because he selects a common topic and explores it from multiple interesting, uncommon perspectives. As far as movies go, the “Milagro Bean Field War” was filmed near where I grew up in New Mexico and it reminds me of home. Likewise, the “Straight Story” was filmed in my grandparents’ town of Laurens, Iowa. And if those movies are old school, it is because I am just emerging from a decade-long hiatus that consisted solely of Disney films.

Proudest moment at UGA?

Many collective moments—when my students have success and go on to do something interesting or important, or when they reach long-term goals that they set. Personally, I received consecutive graduate and undergraduate mentoring awards a couple of years ago that still make me feel good. Two promotions (to associate and to full professor) were lifetime goals, so reaching them was meaningful. These moments were realized because I have been fortunate here to work with wonderful people, conduct interesting research and teach smart students.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? (Other pertinent information to share)

In 2009 I donated a kidney to my sister. It was not an easy process for anyone in our extended family, and her experience with kidney disease gave me a deep appreciation for the research that drives advancements in medical technology.  Today, we are each healthy and happy with our singleton kidney. And we are both grateful—she always offers to buy my Earl Grey tea and mostly I let her!

(Originally published March 13, 2016)