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A BLISSful, adventurous psychologist: Meet Kara Xie

By: Audrey Jones, PRIMO, Harvard College '22

We had the pleasure of interviewing Kara Xie (BLISS Fellow), a rising junior in Quincy House concentrating in Psychology. After taking a psychology class her senior year in high school, Kara knew she wanted to pursue the field’s explorations of human behavior as a way to understand and address societal issues. She is especially in awe of Harvard’s psychology department because it houses so many academic leaders in the field. With a smile, she remembered “reading my [psychology] textbook and absorbing the incredible work of well-known scholars such as Daniel Gilbert, Steven Pinker, and Daniel Schachter, and thinking, they are all at Harvard!... We’re so lucky because these professors are all powerful pioneers in their field who are choosing to contribute their time to teaching students.” In fact, she had the opportunity to work with Professor Gilbert last summer and discovered that he was not only brilliant but also “super approachable,” down to earth, and very supportive of students.

This summer, Kara is working with Professor Leah Somerville in the Affective Neuroscience and Development Lab. Kara has loved working with Professor Somerville, noting that she’s been a great mentor and has introduced Kara to new perspectives on psychology and its applications to society. More specifically, Kara is looking at the risk-taking behaviors of adolescents and examining whether their risk assessments change when affected by the existence or “gaze” of their peers. The behaviors she is currently focused on relate to decision making in the allocation of financial resources. When asked how she would explain her research to a five-year-old, Kara framed her research this way:

“We're looking at groups of people between the ages of 12 to 22 and how they think about what their peers would have wanted them to do versus what they want to do themselves. And we're looking at it in terms of money. There are two choices: you're certainly going to get $5 or it's a different amount of chance to get more; for example 40% of the time, you might get $10. But then the other 60% you'll get zero. So just looking at who picks what, depending on when you're alone or when your friend is watching you pick.”

Interestingly, much of the data collection for the study has been conducted via the Zoom platform, which has adapted well to the pandemic era. Indeed, we discussed how the pandemic might affect future psychology research in general and whether the changes we’ve adopted during this era might become normalized, to some extent, in the future.

Speaking of the future, when asked what keeps her up at night, Kara shared that thinking about post-graduation life is one of the things that is on her mind. She loves the liberal arts nature of Harvard, but also ponders how this will translate into life after graduation. She noted that because our concentrations do not necessarily put us on set career tracks, we have the opportunity to imagine many different ways to contribute to society, which, while exciting, can also feel daunting, especially during this pandemic era. These are questions that are likely keeping many of us up at night, too.

Looking at the (hopefully!) more immediate future, we asked Kara what she longs to do after the end of quarantine. “Well,” she replied, “I think I would love to gather a big group of friends, whether that's from Harvard or my hometown and just do something super adventurous like go rock climbing or travel somewhere new. I crave that sense of adventure...There's just so much to see and learn and so many places to be! And I think that's something that I really honed in on this past year, to challenge myself even more and to learn new things.”

Similarly, when the fall rolls around, she hopes to expand her academic horizon as well – to take classes outside her comfort zone and to learn different perspectives and skill sets outside her field. Like many of us, Kara has also developed a deeper appreciation for what being on Harvard’s campus offers, especially “knowing that our time is now cut short.” She looks forward to the time when we can all return to campus together.

And when we do, please make sure to say hi to the wonderfully talented and adventurous psychologist, Kara! She is not only talented, but also an incredibly warm and thoughtful person, and definitely someone we’d all love to go on rock-climbing and traveling adventures with after quarantine is over! :)

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