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Empathy that Inspires: Graduate Faculty Mentor Award

By Amy Seif,, The Carsey Institute
January 17, 2007


© Lisa Nugent, Heather Turner with former graduate student Nena Stracuzzi

Professor Heather Turner is one of those rare, lucky people; she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life the day she graduated from college. Today, she’s doing just that—teaching and researching stress and mental health. Says Turner, “My job is downright fun. It is intellectually stimulating, and I have a sense of making a real contribution to science.”

According to former student Teresita Camancho-Gonsalves, Turner’s passion for the sociology of stress is “contagious.” “It also became my interest and led to the work that I carried out for my dissertation,” says Camancho-Gonsalves, who is now the associate director of the Evaluation Center at the Human Services Research Institute.

Turner attributes her love for her field to her father, also a professor of sociology. As early as high school, Turner worked in her father’s research unit. She jokes, “I got my interest in research from my dad by osmosis. He never pushed this on me, in fact, he joked that I should get a job that pays more.”

She explains that her particular interest in stress and mental health does not stem from knowing someone greatly affected by stress, as one might think, but rather from a fascination in trying to understand a phenomenon often viewed as personal and individual from a societal perspective. “Psychological disorders are in part a function of how society is set up,” says Turner. “They reflect the opportunities that people have or don’t have in life.”

The number of students that seek her out as an adviser is evidence of the sociologist’s renown as a leading researcher in medical sociology: Turner has chaired the highest number of M.A. and Ph.D. theses of any faculty member in her department. She has published numerous articles in academic journals, is a research associate with the Crimes Against Children Research Center, and a senior fellow with the Carsey Institute. And, in her spare time, Turner is also conference director for an upcoming International Conference on Social Stress Research.

Says colleague Cliff Brown, “Professor Turner holds students to the highest standards, and her students consistently produce some of our program’s strongest empirical research.”

Turner’s students do not become great researchers just by chance. “She has always treated me with the utmost respect, never allowing me to feel foolish over my mistakes, and always pushing me to go a little farther and reach a little higher in my academic pursuits,” says Nena Stracuzzi ’06G, now a post-doc with the Carsey Institute.

Reflecting on her first year in graduate school, Stracuzzi recalls, “I was 39 years old, seven months pregnant, and had just driven across the country with my husband and two-year-old daughter to start the semester. I was so unprepared for what was in store for me in those early years; I am convinced that if I had been paired with another professor, I would not have survived.”

Turner has empathy for graduate students, as “life is full of crises.”

“But I say you have to do it anyway,” says Turner, “and then they usually realize that they can.”

The professor shares a little of her secret to bringing students over the “I can’t do this” hump: “Doctoral students look at the dissertation as a huge, huge thing for them. I cut it up into manageable pieces. You just can’t tell them, ok, go off and write a book. Part of the ‘I can’t do this’ feeling is getting overwhelmed with the whole project. I say, don’t worry about doing X, Y, and Z, let’s do half of X.”

Turner says that mentoring graduate students is the intersection of all the best things about her job: “Developing this kind of relationship with a student allows a collegial association to develop and helps to create a lasting connection with someone with whom you can share your excitement.”

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