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ASU New College recognizes 1st graduates of growing law and psychology PhD program

Side-by-side portraits of ASU graduates Emily Denne (left) and Kristen McCowan.

This summer, ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences recognized Emily Denne (left) and Kristen McCowan as the first two graduates of the growing law and psychology PhD program.

July 14, 2022

This summer, Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences recognized Emily Denne and Kristen McCowan as the first two graduates of the growing law and psychology PhD program. 

“The fact that we were able to get such high-caliber students during our first year was key to the growth and reputation of our PhD program,” said Nick Schweitzer, founding director of the Law and Behavioral Science initiative and associate professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “We are so proud of Emily and Kristen not just for their success in our program, but in how they are using their experience and training to tackle such important issues.”

The program, which was established in 2017 as part of the university’s Law and Behavioral Science initiative, melds the fields of law and psychology to help explain how human behavior interacts with and is affected by the legal system. The program aims to train students by taking a broad interdisciplinary approach with the goal of encouraging them to use this knowledge to tackle understudied areas where the legal system is in need of empirical psychological research. 

"Emily and Kristen were wonderful students who started together as part of the first cohort of the PhD program,” said Tess Neal, associate professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “They learned leadership and mentorship skills, honed their craft in empirical methodology and statistics, and enriched the lives and labs of the students and faculty in the law and behavioral sciences program. We are proud of them and will miss them as they move on into the next stages of their careers, continuing on their quest to improve understanding and functioning of the justice system."

Here, Denne and McCowan share about themselves, their experiences and what’s next for them.

Emily Denne

Denne was born in England and moved to the U.S. when she was 6 years old. She grew up in a small town in Indiana and completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Evansville. 

“It was there that I began research on child maltreatment under the mentorship of Professor Margaret Stevenson,” Denne said. “Her work on child custody coupled with my own lived experiences sparked my interest in child maltreatment research more broadly.”

She began studying law and psychology at ASU in 2018 and was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to fund her education. She successfully defended her thesis on understanding children’s reports of grooming in child sexual abuse cases.

Question: What inspired you to pursue the law and psychology PhD program at ASU?

Answer: I met Jessica Salerno, a professor in the law and psychology department, at the American Psychology-Law Society conference in 2018. At the time, I had just withdrawn from a school psychology PhD program and was struggling to find direction for my research interests. She introduced me to the work of Professor Neal and Professor (Stacia) Stolzenberg at ASU. Both lines of work were exciting and interesting to me and directly aligned with my own research interests — the investigation and prosecution of child maltreatment. It was Professor Salerno who introduced me to this exciting work and gave me a foot in the door at ASU. I am very grateful for the opportunity she gave me.

Q: What was your favorite part of this program?

A: I have many fond memories from the program. I have really enjoyed the meaningful connections and relationships I have built with my mentors and other students in the program. It has been exciting to learn with them, from them, and grow as an academic. 

Q: How does this PhD help you to achieve your goals?

A: I am deeply grateful to the rigorous law and psychology program that the faculty at ASU have built. I have learned so much about myself, my ability to do hard and challenging things, as well as developing content area expertise in child maltreatment. I have been given so many opportunities and so much support for my advisers. When I began graduate school, I hoped to publish 10 peer-reviewed articles by graduation. By the time my degree is conferred, I will likely have reached this goal. I could not have done so without the incredible support and guidance of the faculty in the law and psychology program.

Q: What’s something you learned while at New College — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: At New College, I learned so much that challenged my perspectives and drove me to really value being a consumer of science on a daily basis. One thing that's stuck with me the most was something I learned in Professor Neal's lab. She continually challenges us to engage with the opposite point of view, to consider adversarial collaborations and critically evaluate both sides of an argument. This idea of adversarial collaboration, or directly engaging with and working with those who would have opposite viewpoints, has been something I have worked to do in both my personal and professional life. It has helped me really develop my own opinions and stances, but has also challenged me to be open to changing my opinion in light of new and different evidence.

Q: What are your post-graduation plans?

A: I hope to spend some time working as a child forensic interviewer. I study how forensic interviewers gather reports from maltreated children, so I hope to really immerse myself in the field and learn more from those who do this work directly. I am also currently pursuing a post-doctorate at Griffith University in Australia at the Center for Forensic Interviewing. Should I receive the postdoc, I will have the opportunity to study under Martine Powell and Sonja Brubacher at the center.

Kristen McCowan

McCowan is originally from Chicago, Illinois, and has lived in Phoenix since she first started attending ASU. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

She first became interested in legal psychology after taking a psychology and law course and learning about the limitations in our criminal justice system. After learning more about the field, she became involved in research looking at jury decision-making in a sexual assault case, which sparked her interest in jury research and how people weigh different types of evidence and the effect of biases on judgments throughout a case. 

“Knowing I wanted to do this type of work, Professor Tess Neal's research stood out to me, and I liked that the program had a strong emphasis on the intersection of psych and law, with classes that were specific to this area of research,” McCowan said.

She successfully defended her thesis on predictors of jurors’ understanding of evidence strength

Question: What was your favorite part of this program?

Answer: My favorite part of this program was expanding my areas of interest and getting to work closely with Tess and the rest of the faculty and students. The program would every once in a while have other researchers in the field visit to present their work, and it was a great chance to get to know people better in both an academic and social setting afterwards. The courses we were able to take specific to the intersection of psychology and the legal system also taught me a lot about the field, and with the classes being smaller and discussion-based, it was great getting to hear everyone's perspectives on the research we read. 

Q: How does this PhD help you to achieve your goals?

A: As a whole, the program's emphasis on research methodology and writing helped me on the job market pursuing a research-centric position. Tess' research lab gave me opportunities to take leadership roles in the research process — which, as a research analyst, taught me skills I continue to use day to day. The faculty also encouraged students to attend conferences and give research talks that helped with networking and getting involved in the field.

Q: What’s something you learned while at New College — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I learned a lot about the diverse career opportunities that opened my eyes to ways to make positive changes in the legal system through research without necessarily having to pursue a strictly academic-based job. 

Q: What are your post-graduation plans?

A: Post-graduation, I am going to continue working in the legal psychology realm, working as a research analyst for the Center of Integrity in Forensic Sciences doing research for forensic evidence reform.

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