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Psychology professor recognized for work in understanding brain, behavior


Portrait of ASU Department of Psychology Professor Daniel McNeish

ASU Department of Psychology Professor Daniel McNeish. Courtesy photo

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March 04, 2024

Daniel McNeish, professor in the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, is the 2024 winner of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Early Career Impact Award.

The honor recognizes scientists who have made meaningful contributions to the understanding of the brain and behavior. McNeish won for developing statistical methods for behavioral research, including his work on best practices for handling small amounts of data, which can be the case for neuroimaging datasets and also when assessing health and behavioral disparities in underrepresented groups.

A timeline of awards and recognitions

2024

Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Early Career Impact Award

2023

American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology

Clarivate/Web of Science Highly Cited Researcher in Psychiatry/Psychology

2022

Clarivate/Web of Science Highly Cited Researcher in Psychiatry/Psychology

2021

Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology Tanaka Award

2020

Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology Early Career Research Award

2019

American Psychological Association Anne Anastasi Distinguished Early Career Contributions Award

American Educational Research Association Early Career Award in Statistics

2018

Association for Psychological Science Rising Star Award

American Psychological Association Anne Anastasi Dissertation Award

2017

Joined ASU

This award is one of many that McNeish has won since joining ASU. He spoke to ASU News about his path to ASU and the future of his research.

Question: Looking back, what inspired you to pursue a career in quantitative psychology?

Answer: My high school required all of us to take the ACT, and I got a score that diverted my life trajectory away from being the type of student who was not destined for college. I kept thinking about why a test score could mean so much, where it came from, how did it reveal something about me.

These questions — which are all about trying to quantify something that is inherently unquantifiable — eventually led me to quantitative psychology. I ended up transferring colleges to study with Steve Stemler at Wesleyan University, who researched things like how to predict college readiness from test scores and how test scores are even created in the first place. I had no idea it was possible to do that for a living!

Q: How do you approach your research to consistently generate impactful results?

A: I think about the reach of quantitative psychology research like a pyramid. Some work at the top of the pyramid focuses on pushing boundaries and creating new methods, which is undoubtedly important but has a little narrower scope and audience. My interest lies more towards the base of the pyramid, where the scope and audience are broader. I am more often concerned with things like how to optimize use of existing tools or clarify best statistical practices for psychologists and behavioral scientists.

Q: What led you to choose ASU as your professional home?

A: It was easy. For years, ASU has had one of the — if not the — best quantitative psychology programs. When I got the invitation to interview, I turned down other interviews to focus on the opportunity at ASU. When I got the offer email, I was ready to accept as soon as I saw the subject line, but my postdoc advisor reminded me that it’s typical to at least open the attached letter offer before replying.

The focus here is very much on practical applications of quantitative psychology and is a perfect fit for me. There is also a lot of translational work happening, which means ample opportunity to bridge the gap between statistics and behavioral research.

Q: How do you engage students in your research?

A: Quantitative psychology research is intertwined with what is happening in the rest of the department, and a lot of research ideas come from working with students. For example, a graduate student in one of my classes, Jenn Somers, asked me for advice on how to analyze complicated time-series data she had. We learned about it together and now the method we landed on, called dynamic structural equation models, has become one of my main research topics. I am giving a keynote address on this topic in March.

Students are often at the forefront of research and are the ones pushing the field, so working with inquisitive students is a valuable resource for me. They are phenomenal at identifying emerging practical problems that will require new statistical analysis.

Q: Psychology and data science are constantly evolving. What emerging trends or technologies do you find most exciting or promising for the future of quantitative research methods?

A: Smartphones and wearables are only going to become more popular — and more informative. For a long time, behavioral research has relied on people coming into the lab, which means you are limited by scheduling constraints and inevitably by attrition. When people can participate in research by responding to a text message or sharing information already in their smartphones, it really changes the data. Before, we might have had a handful of data points, but now (we) have thousands. There will be many opportunities for statistical research as the focus shifts to how to analyze all this information.

Q: Which of the many career awards you have won are you the most proud of — and why?

A: I was most surprised by the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology, not because it is better than any of the other awards but because it recognizes widespread implications across psychology rather than only in my immediate subfield. This award has been around since 1974, and only three or four quantitative psychologists have won, so it is pretty rare for someone in our field to be recognized this way by the broader psychology community.

Q: What advice would you give your previous self or young people interested in quantitative research?

A: The biggest hurdle I have had to overcome is being OK with not knowing the answer. I used to be horrified when someone asked about something I did not know. Now, those types of questions are the ones I most welcome because they have the most potential to uncover something new.

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