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New Faces: James Hyman

When James Hyman decided to go into psychology, he more or less was joining the family business.

People  |  Sep 29, 2014  |  By Diane Russell

James Hyman, assistant professor of Psychology. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Don't ask assistant psychology professor James Hyman to help you understand your crazy coworkers. He's not a psychotherapist. But he has family members who might be able to assist you with that.

Why are you at UNLV?

I'm at UNLV because I love the great opportunity that's here, for me to be a part of a growing department. When I interviewed here and spoke with the new department chair, Dr. (Chris) Kearney, I really liked his vision for the future of the department and wanted to be a part of it. The neuroscience wing of the department is still quite small, so there's the rare chance to get in at the ground floor, so to speak, and create something great here. All together, hopefully I can be a small part of helping to further cement UNLV's status as a world-renowned research university and help us get closer to attaining Tier One status.

Where did you grow up?

I grew in Reston, Va., which is a suburb of Washington, D.C. It was a really nice place to grow up, so close to so much history and it's just a beautiful part of the country.

What is your field?

I'm a neuroscientist. Specifically, I use electrophysiological recordings to better understand how the brain encodes information related to actions and their outcomes. I'm also interested in how the prefrontal cortex exerts cognitive "control" over the rest of the brain if/when our expectations about an outcome are/aren't met.

What drew you to your field?

Both of my parents and one of my sisters are psychotherapists, so you could say that psychology is the family business, but for me the spark didn't happen until I took physiological psychology as an undergrad. I had never been exposed to the biological approach to studying mental processes before, and that idea, that we have the ability to truly fully explain cognition, emotion, perception, etc., really excited me, and it still does today. A couple weeks into that semester I volunteered in a behavioral pharmacology lab and then, boom, 15 or so years later, here I am.

What is a misconception many people have about your field?

It seems every time I tell someone I'm a psychologist they'll say something like: "Oh boy, you ought to come down and do your studies at my work" or "Are you analyzing me right now? I feel like I should be on a couch talking to you." People generally think psychology is only psychotherapy, but it's actually an incredibly diverse and rich field and for the most part only a few of us can help you deal with your crazy coworkers.

If I weren't able to work in my current field, I would want to be..."

A science teacher or science writer. In some way I'd want to be involved with sharing science with other people. I'm a huge science geek and I spend lots of my free time reading about discoveries in other fields or watching documentaries. Today, scientific advancements are happening all around us, at an incredibly fast pace, and with the advent of modern information technology everyone now has access to all that knowledge. It's a very exciting time to be alive and informed.

One tip for success

Persevere. Everything I've accomplished in my life from jobs to degrees to publications is something that I'd first failed at before I succeeded. In most cases I failed over and over again before succeeding. If I wouldn't have brushed off each last failure and kept stubbornly persevering, then I assure I would not be here today answering these questions.

What has been the proudest moment of your life?

The day my son was born. I know that is a cliché answer straight out of Interview 101, but it really is true. All my life I knew I wanted a family, but I never really fully grasped what that meant until he was born. It's funny. He's only a baby still, but he's taught me so much about myself and about life. With him and my beautiful wife, we now make up our own family and I'm really proud of that and want to help us be the best family we can be.

Tell us something people would be surprised to learn about you.

I'm an avid home cook and do most of the cooking for our family. I didn't really start cooking 'til I met my wife six years ago, but now I look forward to cooking most every day. I love being in the kitchen and creating, and ultimately seeing my wife and son enjoy eating (hopefully) what I've made.

Who is your hero and why?

I'd say my father's father, even though he died when I was still a baby. He left Russia at 10 with his mother, and seven tumultuous years later he arrived in New York City speaking zero English, having had little formal education, and with no money. Through hard work, determination, perseverance and, as I've been told, a bit of charisma, he ended up owning a large department store and became one of the wealthiest men in the small Virginia town he settled in. But more important then the money was that all four of his kids got college degrees and became professionals. Education and community service were very important to him, and I strive every day to live up to his ideal.

What are your hobbies?

I play drums. In the past I've been in various rock bands, each of little acclaim, but I really like to make music with other people. These days I just bang away on the drums in my garage occasionally, but maybe soon, after my kids are a bit older, I'll have time to play music more often. I also play golf and I'm a runner.