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New Regents Professor is a player-coach who knows how to win

Dave MacKinnon went from hockey fame to scoring goals for ASU's Department of Psychology

ASU Regents Professor Dave MacKinnon in his office.
February 15, 2022

Dave MacKinnon’s body has endured several injuries from years of playing hockey: a concussion, a separated shoulder, broken teeth and stitches in strange places.

“At 17, I thought it was cool to say I had stitches in my tongue,” MacKinnon said.

Decades later, he can brag about more substantial things. Like the fact that he is now considered one of Arizona State University’s top scholars. 

MacKinnon was recently inaugurated as one of four Regents Professors for 2022, and news of the elite designation came as both a surprise and an honor.

“Given the people I know who are Regents Professors, I’m humbled to be in that group,” said MacKinnon, who is a Foundation Professor in the Department of Psychology in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I’m very proud this comes from Arizona State University, which has been my home for 32 years now.”

Regents Professor is the highest faculty honor and is conferred on full professors who have made remarkable achievements that have brought them national attention and international distinction.

Less than 3% of all ASU faculty carry the distinction.

“For over three decades, Professor MacKinnon has enriched The College’s Department of Psychology with his dedication to student success and innovation,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a Foundation Professor in ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies. “His contributions to the field of psychology, especially the use of state-of-the-art and sophisticated approaches to assess the effectiveness of prevention and intervention programs, both at ASU and beyond, make him worthy of the honor of Regents Professor. We are grateful to have him as part of The College community.” 

MacKinnon is globally recognized as a leader in quantitative psychology — the application of statistics to help understand psychology. His primary area of expertise is the prevention of problems before they occur. His quantitative approaches have empowered scientists across a host of disciplines to move beyond determining whether their interventions affect an outcome of interest to ascertain how such effects come to be. He has also applied these approaches to develop and refine interventions that address some of the most pressing issues of modern times, including the prevention of adolescent drug abuse.

Human behavior has interested MacKinnon since he was a youth living in a blue collar section of Dedham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.

“Growing up in a neighborhood of small houses and large families gave me early exposure to the many types of positive and negative behavior,” MacKinnon said. “And there was plenty of unusual behavior and conflict during the 1960s and early ‘70s.”

MacKinnon said sports, specifically hockey, kept him and his three brothers grounded. And it just so happened they were good at it — exceptionally good. All MacKinnon brothers played in college, and MacKinnon and two of his brothers played professionally in Europe. MacKinnon, who also played baseball and ran cross-country in high school, was left wing in hockey, with some success at scoring goals. Enough success that he began receiving letters from college coaches when he was a high school freshman.

“Of course, those letters went right to my head,” MacKinnon laughed. “I’d say high school were my wild years where I went off the rails for a little bit. Luckily for me, I had people who gave me honest feedback about things in my life, and that helped.”

Hockey player

Dave MacKinnon in high school.

It didn’t hurt that MacKinnon was naturally bright. He took advanced classes in mathematics, biology and chemistry, and received interest from many schools but ultimately attended Harvard University.  

He found that Division I hockey was demanding, and the level of athleticism was a few notches above what he was used to.

“I made the varsity hockey team as a sophomore, which was a feat, but it was a constant effort to gain playing time because everyone was so good,” MacKinnon said. “I had all the time demands, effort and responsibility of a Division I athlete.”

That meant his love for hockey was ultimately going to clash with his studies. That came to a head after a hockey game at Dartmouth. A snowstorm had delayed the team’s trip back to Cambridge.

“I had a financial aid job washing dishes, and my supervisor was not happy with me about being late,” said MacKinnon, who also bartended, drove a truck, gardened, painted and performed construction work throughout his college career. “That started the process where I moved away from hockey to focus more on science.”

During his sophomore year at Harvard, MacKinnon received kudos from both his psychology and statistics professors.

While working on his honors thesis paper, “The Role of Frustration in Alcohol Consumption,” MacKinnon studied the psychological impact of alcohol on rats. The experiment did not work, but he says he learned valuable information about research.

“I found the whole aspect of addiction fascinating in that it’s a very hard thing for people to change their behavior once you’ve developed certain habits,” said MacKinnon, who went on to get his master's degree and PhD at UCLA. “I wanted to find a way to help people who were interested in changing their behavior.”

MacKinnon figured there had to be some other way. Instead of looking at drug use by guessing what might work, perhaps there was a scientific approach to address the issue? He did this through a new method at the time, which used mathematics to find a way to study how change occurs.

Beginning in the late 1980s, when MacKinnon was an assistant professor at USC, he started using and improving mediation analyses to better understand how drug prevention programs work. This type of research can uncover why some programs work for some but not for others. Mediation analysis is now one of the most powerful tools used by scientists who develop interventions to prevent social, mental health, physical and academic problems.

MacKinnon has used mediation analysis to understand how drug prevention programs work for middle school students, how steroid prevention programs work for high school football players, and how health interventions work for firefighters and law enforcement officers.

ASU recognized the impact of MacKinnon’s work and hired him as an assistant professor in 1990. So far, MacKinnon’s work has led to over 200 publications and a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award from the National Institutes of Drug Abuse, an honor given to only the handful of research programs that receive the highest possible rating. Since 2014, MacKinnon has twice been named in the top 1% of researchers based on the number of times his publications have been citied.

MacKinnon founded the Research in Prevention Laboratory in 1997. Since then, the lab has generated numerous research grants and trained many undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students in psychology, and has bolstered the department’s national reputation.  

During his time at ASU, MacKinnon has had many outstanding students learn and extend mediation methods for assessing change. That earned him a 2007 ASU Outstanding Mentor Award and a teaching/mentoring award from the American Psychological Association in 2021.

He said mentoring has many similarities to the teamwork ethic in sports. 

“A team united in a goal can do amazing things together,” MacKinnon said. “Combining individual talent, collaborative teamwork and industriousness can solve thorny scientific problems.”

To date, MacKinnon has advised 20 students to their PhDs in psychology. One of them is Heather Smyth, who gives him high marks.

“Professor MacKinnon has a lot of wisdom and is extremely patient in how he imparts that wisdom,” said Smyth, who is studying for her PhD in quantitative psychology. “He basically shows you, ‘Here’s the sandbox, and I’m going to be right here if you need anything or have any questions. You go play and figure this out for yourself. When you get stuck, I’ll help you.’

"So you feel very independent, but also in a framework that is supportive and safe.”

MacKinnon is approaching overtime when it comes to his academic career, but he still wants to play and score goals for his team.  

“It’s a great honor to work at ASU. I like the approach we have here at the university,” MacKinnon said. “I also like that ASU has all of these sports I can go to after work. And now I’ll be able to walk over and attend a hockey game soon in our own arena.”

Kimberlee D’Ardenne from ASU’s Psychology Department contributed to this article.

Top photo: Foundation Professor Dave MacKinnon was recently named a Regents Professor for his work in quantifying analysis of alcohol addiction therapies. In addition to his work in understanding interventions, he also mentors graduate students in the field. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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