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Balancing marks day-to-day lifestyle for teacher, researcher

Research. Teaching. Service. It’s the trinity of academic life, but nobody said it was easy. Still, Frances K. McSweeney, professor of psychology and the 2004 recipient of the WSU Eminent Faculty Award, the highest honor the university bestows on its faculty, makes it look easy. More than easy, like she enjoys it.

“The thing that I really, truly enjoy about academic life is having a diversity of tasks,” she said. “I think that’s one of the advantages of an academic job.

“In the university,” she said, and laughed, “there’s always something else to do if one area isn’t going well.”

But, her colleagues say, she does it all extremely well.

“It is extraordinarily difficult to be an outstanding researcher and an administrator and a teacher,” said Thomas Brigham, executive secretary of the Faculty Senate and a professor in the psychology department. He said McSweeney’s accomplishments in any one area would make her a valuable member of the WSU faculty, but “that level in all areas, we just don’t see very often. It’s that combination of achievement that makes her unique.”

McSweeney is the fourth recipient of the annual Eminent Faculty Award, joining previous winners Ralph Yount, Don Dillman and Rod Croteau. The honor, which includes a $15,000 monetary award, recognizes faculty members who have been with WSU for at least 10 years, have “changed the thinking” in his or her field, and have made a notable contribution to the vitality and strength of WSU.

She is also one of three faculty to earn promotion in 2003-04 to Regents Professor, which recognizes sustained accomplishment in teaching, scholarship and public service.

McSweeney — who came to WSU in 1974 after earning her Ph.D. at Harvard, where she worked in B.F. Skinner’s lab — has made her own lasting contribution to behavioral science. It has long been understood that people habituate to, or become accustomed to, environmental stimuli such as noise or smell, so that eventually the stimuli loses its ability to provoke a response. For instance, construction noises across the street may be distracting at first, but over time they fade into the background.

McSweeney was the first to realize that voluntary behaviors also undergo habituation. People generally think they stop eating because they are full, stop drinking because they aren’t thirsty, stop exercising because they are tired. But McSweeney believes, and research is proving, that there’s another factor — habituation. In general, it explains why the first seven or eight spoonfuls of ice cream are so much more appealing than the last two or three.

This phenomenon is changing the way scientists understand human behavior. According to Brigham, “…it is likely that our theories of complex human behavior will have to be modified on the basis of our understanding of this work.” In particular, her theory has potential practical application for the treatment of substance abuse and other addictive behaviors.

McSweeney, a former WSU Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor, has been named a fellow of the most prestigious academic and professional organizations in her field, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. She has published more than 100 papers in the top academic journals and serves on the editorial board, or as an associate editor, of several academic journals.

McSweeney’s vita includes not just pages (and pages) of publications and presentations, but also undergraduate teaching evaluations, which are consistently outstanding. Google searches of former graduate students finds them working and publishing at universities across the country.

Eric Murphy earned his Ph.D. in 2003 and is already working at a tenure track position at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Murphy said the success of McSweeney’s former graduate students was a big reason why he chose to attend WSU.

“She has a tremendous record,” he said. “All of her former graduate students are in academic jobs and are publishing.”

Murphy said McSweeney mentors her students by guiding and supporting them, but also by letting them choose their own paths and giving them opportunities to grow in their research and teaching abilities.

Samantha Swindell, another former graduate student who now works in WSU’s psychology department, concurs.

“It was a tremendous privilege to work with McSweeney,” she said. “She’s very supportive of her students in every respect, as teachers and as researchers.” Swindell said McSweeney has been particularly supportive of women students, which is much appreciated in a field dominated by men.

Supporting women in leadership roles, especially in the sciences, is important to McSweeney, and she said she appreciates the support she’s received over the years from WSU faculty.

“I don’t think a woman could have won this award when I first came to this university,” she said.

McSweeney said her own mentors at the university have been Brigham, who helped hired her and continues to be a strong supporter of her work, and Ron Hopkins, former chair of the psychology department. “I’m not exaggerating,” she said. “I would never have been a department chair without his influence.”

In service to the university, McSweeney has been on numerous boards and committees and has held posts as department chair and vice chair and chair of the Faculty Senate. She is currently vice provost for Faculty Affairs.

She received the 2002 Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award for Research, Scholarship and Arts and the 2001 Samuel H. Smith Leadership Award. In 1995 she delivered WSU’s Distinguished Faculty Address.

McSweeney graduated from Smith College and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard.

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