Shining a light on ethnic, cultural, and religious divides in scientific research

Written by Angie Klink.

David Rollock was the type of kid to whom other kids told their problems. When he was growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Rollock strove to make his peers feel comfortable.

“I tried to welcome new people and was nice to those who weren’t always the most popular,” Rollock said.

David Rollock’s innate emotional intelligence and affinity to serve others led him to the field of psychology, although he had considered going into the “religious life.” Rollock’s career as a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University spans more than three decades.

Looking to build on his long-standing interest in helping others, Rollock took his first psychology course in high school. The course textbook was pivotal in influencing his decision to study psychological sciences as a career. It also set the tone for his future research.

“The problem came with the textbook,” Rollock said. “Among the topics covered was human intelligence and its assessment. The authors cited the literature at that time as concluding that African Americans tested about a standard deviation lower than the general Euro-American population on standardized IQ tests—and that these tests fully and accurately measured ‘intelligence.’ That bothered me for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that nearly every year that I had been in school, I had been at the top of the class. So, clearly there was something very discrepant between my experience and what the textbook said.”

Rollock majored in psychology at Princeton University where he was the undergraduate representative to the faculty. He won the department’s prize for the best socially relevant senior thesis, titled “Psychotherapy with Black American Clients,” and graduated cum laude in 1981. Rollock earned his master’s and Ph.D. in clinical/community psychology from Yale University, under noted educational psychologist Edmund W. Gordon. Back in New York, he spent a year in a predoctoral clinical internship at Bronx Municipal Hospital Center and Einstein College of Medicine. A former Purdue faculty member working with Gordon suggested to Rollock that he apply for a faculty position at a university with which he was unfamiliar—Purdue. Despite his comfort and pride in his east coast roots, after hearing more about the Purdue, Rollock applied and was hired in 1988. Rollock was the first African American psychologist hired to the Purdue faculty since Purdue first began offering psychology classes in 1908.

Rollock and former Purdue psychological sciences faculty member, Scott Vrana, co-authored a study that looked at some of the physiological responses of both African American and Euro-American students to different forms of basic contact with others. They were interested in whether brief social encounters would predict basic emotions and later approach or avoidance behavior, and how the encounters affected physiology. After their findings were published in the early 1990s, they appeared in the documentary “Understanding Race” on TLC (The Learning Channel). The film showed Rollock and Vrana in a lab in Purdue’s Psychological Sciences Building measuring stress responses when confronted and touched by a stranger of the same or another race.

Prompted by incidents in the late 1990s involving negative, sometimes lethal, encounters between Euro-American police officers and African American citizens, particularly unarmed African American men, Rollock and Vrana branched out to study emotional responses to police contact among African Americans, including data regarding implicit attitudes towards police.

Throughout his time at Purdue, Rollock has persistently extended a hand to elevate and support African American faculty, staff, students and community members. One of the first groups he reached out to upon arriving at Purdue was the Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff. Rollock has maintained active membership with the Caucus over the years, including two terms as chairperson. Rollock is a faculty affiliate in Purdue’s African American Studies and Research Center. He was director of Clinical Training, heading the Clinical Psychological Doctoral Program from 2002 to 2008, and he currently serves as head of the Department of Psychological Sciences. In 2018, Rollock was one of ten faculty members across campus to be named a 150th Anniversary Professor by the Office of the Provost, honoring his achievements in teaching and mentoring at Purdue. Rollock’s career has emerged in the nexus of two elements: a focus on mental health and well-being combined with the underlying science that better represents the experiences of all people. He shines light upon the ethnic, cultural and religious divides that can exist in scientific research. He emphasizes the importance for all science to represent accurately the experiences, talents and capabilities of all people. “I firmly believe we can’t have a comprehensive human psychology unless we understand humanity in all of its shades, variations and permutations,” Rollock said. “And clearly we have not done that yet.”