Interview with Aaron Fisher

From special education student and repeating a year in high school to tenured professor at Berkeley – the psychologist talks about how his life transformed

July 18, 2019
Aaron Fisher

Aaron Fisher is associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was a special education student in elementary school, not “mainstreamed” until the 5th grade, and had to repeat a year in high school. Yet, after undergraduate study at Wesleyan University, postgraduate study at Columbia University and a PhD at Pennsylvania State University, he worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University before joining Berkeley. He recently shared his delight that someone from his difficult educational background should have managed to gain tenure – in a tweet that gained about 37,000 likes.

Where and when were you born?
Boston, Massachusetts on 23 January 1977. I grew up in Newton, a Boston suburb.

How has this shaped who you are?
I grew up in a resource-rich environment. Throughout my time in the Newton Public Schools, I benefited from programmes such as special education and focused attention from teachers, counsellors and administrators. Although my interactions with the last group involved a number of detentions and suspensions, it’s important to acknowledge that I wasn’t falling through any cracks.

How did you turn your life round?
It happened in stages. When I was young, I had tremendous difficulty learning and forming healthy interpersonal relationships. I was poorly calibrated to the environment; my interpretations and reactions were often well beyond what the situation called for – perceived rejection, tears, angry outbursts, for example. So the first major breakthrough for me came in the 4th grade, when I first began reckoning with this, understanding it and starting to take responsibility. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I began to understand that we can make behavioural choices, even in the presence of strong emotions.

Was there a eureka moment that marked a turning point?
Although I had stopped attending school, I still hung out around my high school frequently. One day, I was met by an old friend, still one of my closest friends in the world. He was a state champion wrestler, a big, strong, intimidating guy. He grabbed me and pinned me against a locker. He got right in my face and said that I was throwing my life away. Just a few days later, I was on the phone with another friend. We were talking about the future, and I casually mentioned something about “when we’re in college”. She stopped me and matter-of-factly said, “Aaron, you’re not going to college.” It was so jarring, but I found that I couldn’t argue.

What happened next?
Shortly afterward, I asked my parents about boarding schools. I felt that I needed to remove myself from all the distractions I had created. I was accepted conditionally [at the Berkshire School in Western Massachusetts], on academic and behavioural probation from the start. I finished the year with a 3.9 grade point average (out of 4) and never looked back academically.

How did it feel to be accepted into a university?
Euphoric. Literally unbelievable. I remember receiving the acceptance packet from Wesleyan and the only other person in the mailroom was this shy, quiet kid in my class, Philip. I grabbed him and squeezed the life out of him!

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Dedicated to learning, but not focused on grades at all. I wanted to be a professional musician and didn’t see any further education in my future.

What led you to switch from music to psychology after completing your first degree?
I wanted to propose to my (now) wife and music felt too unpredictable, provided too uncertain a future. I was on Columbia University’s website at some terribly late hour considering post-baccalaureate programmes in medicine and psychology. Choosing the latter was somewhat arbitrary at the time!

What impact do you feel that your early experience has had on your work today?
It permeates everything I do. It gives me a sense of compassion, it helps me understand my privilege and good fortune. I think about my youth every day. I carry it as a scar, but also as a continual source of hope and motivation.

What does it feel like to have gained tenure at Berkeley?
It makes me want to cry, to hug everyone I love, to pound my chest. It fills me with gratitude. It makes me want to write thoughtful thank you notes to everyone who has helped and supported me in my life.

What are the major research avenues you now want to pursue?
I want to contribute to the realisation of a practical and actionable precision behavioural health model. I think that the ability to match people, problems and interventions in psychological and behavioural domains is within reach.

If you were appointed secretary of education, what policy would you immediately introduce?
I would find a way to bring high-quality education into rural and lower-income environments. Everyone should have the opportunity to have a Newton, Massachusetts kind of education.

Tell us about someone you admire
Bob Marley has always been a huge hero. It isn’t just the music he created, which is an enormous body of work, full of some of the most indelible lyrics and melodies ever written. But more than that, he never let his circumstances limit or define him. He was so audaciously and confidently himself. He spoke truth to power, even after an attempt on his life.

What one thing would improve your working week?
I’d like to play more music. People are often surprised when I tell them that I play an hour or two of guitar each day. But the truth is, I’d love to play more!

Matthew Reisz


Appointments

Shakira Martin will take up the new role of head of student experience at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.

Ms Martin joins the college following a two-year tenure as president of the National Union of Students.

Her role will focus on ensuring a positive experience for students throughout their learning journey, covering student recruitment, admissions, student services and study support.

“I am really excited as head of student experience to be able to support the college and colleagues to step outside of their comfort zone and go into the corners of society often forgotten about for new fresh talent,” she said.

Ryan Adesnik has been appointed senior associate vice-president for government affairs at Stanford University.

The role will see him guide Stanford’s governmental relations efforts at all levels.

He has served as associate vice-president at the university since 2004 and was previously director of government relations in the School of Medicine.

He succeeds David Demarest, who retired in February.

Christy Pratt is the new director of admissions at the University of Notre Dame.

She will succeed Bob Mundy, who is retiring after a 36-year career at Notre Dame.

Lisa Kalynchuk has been announced as vice-president research at the University of Victoria.

Dr Kalynchuk replaces David Castle, who had held the position since 2014.

Jennie Henley has been appointed to the new position of director of programmes at the Royal Northern College of Music.

An internationally renowned expert in music pedagogy, Dr Henley will take up the role in October.

Vessela Ilieva has been appointed the new dean of Utah Valley University’s School of Education.

She joined the university in 2010 and had been serving as the interim dean since last year.

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