Psychology Professor Discusses Genius Grant
An interview with Matthew Nock
Each year between 20 to 40 people find out they have received a MacArthur Fellowship (known popularly as the genius grant) with a phone call. Harvard’s Matthew Nock was one of the lucky few to pick up the phone one day last fall and be told he would receive $500,000 over a five-year period for his research on suicide and self-destructive behaviors.
At Harvard Extension School, Nock, professor of psychology at Harvard University, teaches Self-Destructive Behaviors and Psychological Treatment Research. In this Q&A for the Alumni Bulletin, he spoke about where he sees his research going with the help of the grant and what he enjoys about teaching at Extension School.
What was your reaction when you found out you won the MacArthur grant?
Complete shock, followed by extreme gratitude. I think it feels a little like receiving an individual award when playing a team sport (although I am not very athletic and have never received an individual award for sports—not even a Little League trophy—so this is just a guess).
“When I got the call asking ‘Is this Matthew Nock? Are you alone?’ I thought it was one of my friends from high school messing with me. Then they told me that I had received a MacArthur Fellowship and that I could only tell one person. I called my wife and she did not believe that it was a real thing. I received a letter the next morning confirming the Fellowship, which convinced my wife, but was followed shortly by, ‘You know you’re not really a genius, right?’”
My research is very collaborative in nature and I am privileged to work with some of the most brilliant, creative, and hard-working people in the field and our research is the product of this team effort. I am grateful to my collaborators, mentors, staff, students, and, of course, very grateful as well to the MacArthur Foundation.
What drew you to studying psychology?
When I started college at Boston University I was very interested in biology and philosophy as ways of understanding the world in general and why people behave the way they do. Psychology combines these, and other, disciplines in an effort to explain why we do the things we do, a question that has always captivated me. Once I started taking courses and later getting involved in research, it became clear that this is what I would spend my life doing.
In particular, you specialize in suicide and self-destructive behaviors. Why focus on these subjects?
I have always been curious as to why some people engage in aggressive, impulsive, and self-destructive behavior. During my junior year of college, I enrolled in a study abroad program and spent a semester in London, which included a placement in a psychiatric hospital. I was the only male student in that rotation, so they assigned me to the locked unit for violent patients.
While working there, I saw many patients who engaged in severe self-injurious and suicidal behavior. I understood violence, but I could not understand why people would intentionally harm themselves.
I began reading about suicide and self-injury and soon realized that, although suicide is among the leading causes of death worldwide, there is a lot that we don’t know about it. I started doing research on suicide and self-injury after college and haven’t stopped.
How has your life changed since receiving the grant?
Most importantly, the MacArthur Fellowship has brought attention to the problem and the study of suicide and self-injury. I am glad to see that happening.
Regarding changes in my own life, the fellowship will allow us to do some riskier, more creative work by freeing up time that typically would be spent working on already-funded projects, and by researching new and untested ideas.
It is still early (eight months into the five-year award), and I am hopeful that the support of the MacArthur Foundation will allow us to make some great progress toward answering some of our key questions about suicide and self-injury.
How do you think your research will make a difference in the lives of those who are troubled?
Several of our next steps will be aimed at seeing whether some of the tests we have been developing can actually improve our ability to predict who will engage in suicidal or self-injurious behavior. If they can, we will get to work on developing ways to get the tests into the hands of clinicians and other health professionals who can use them to prevent suicidal and self-injurious behaviors.
We are also currently doing a wide range of other projects. I am working with other researchers on large-scale, collaborative projects, and one is examining suicide among soldiers in the US Army, and another is examining suicidal behavior in over 25 different countries around the world. Both of these are aimed at improving our understanding of suicidal behavior, with the ultimate goal of getting better at predicting and preventing it.
We also are doing several lab-, hospital-, and web-based studies in which we are trying to develop new ways of detecting and measuring suicidal thinking. Given that many people who are thinking about suicide or self-injury don’t like to talk about it, we are developing computer-based tests that use people’s reaction times to measure their suicide-related thoughts.
We have made some progress toward a better understanding of suicide and self-injury, but there is a very long road ahead with more questions than answers. We will continue to work long and hard at advancing our understanding of these perplexing and devastating problems.
What appeals to you about teaching at Harvard Extension School?
I love teaching at Harvard Extension School because of the students. The students are heterogeneous (e.g., my last course included a chemist, an engineer, several teachers, and a professional poker player), and it creates a really amazing learning environment in which multiple perspectives are brought to bear on discussions about the research we are reading.
It also provides an opportunity for me to learn new ways to view the topics I am teaching about. Teaching at the Extension School has been very educational for me! The students also are among the most engaging and hard-working I have seen, with some driving or even flying long distances each week to attend class. Their desire to learn is energizing, and I loved each and every course I have taught so far. I am sure this will continue for many years.