Dean Marion Underwood

Dean Marion Underwood

Dr. Marion Underwood is dean in the College of Health and Human Sciences and distinguished professor of Psychological Sciences. She earned her master’s (1987) and Ph.D. (1991) from Duke University in clinical psychology. Underwood began her career at Purdue in fall 2018. As HHS dean, she is working to advance the College as a national leader in enhancing human health through its groundbreaking research and dynamic academic programs.

What is the focus of your research?

I have long been fascinated by the subtle ways children and adolescents cope with anger and pursue their social goals. Much of my work has focused on social aggression (hurting others by harming their social relationships). These behaviors include both verbal and non-verbal forms of social exclusion, malicious gossip and friendship manipulation. Studying how these behaviors develop over time led me to a research project where I captured the content of adolescents’ text messaging over their four years of high school, which turned out to be an amazing window into adolescent peer culture.

What led to your developing an interest in this area of research?

As someone who has always been conscientious and terrified of breaking rules even by accident, I have long been interested in people who engage in antisocial behavior. This led me to the study of physical aggression, but then I realized that few girls and women fight physically but instead hurt others in more subtle ways, so my interests turned to social aggression. In our longitudinal study of origins and outcomes of social aggression, we brought early adolescents into the lab to interact with a parent and a best friend, and in 2006, I began to observe early adolescents bringing cell phones into the lab and being obsessed with texting their friends. Soon after that, I got a BlackBerry smartphone for my own use. I realized that I was holding my social network in my hand, and I resolved to find a way to capture the content of our participants’ text messaging.

What has been one of your most rewarding research experiences?

My most rewarding research experience was leading the BlackBerry project, a longitudinal study where we gave adolescents BlackBerry smartphones prior to 9th grade and captured the content of their text messaging communication through four years of high school and then their Facebook communication for two years after that. I was fortunate to work with a great team of commercial partners and young research assistants who did a phenomenal job of making the technology work and helping me to figure out how to code the text-messaging communication. We were all so excited to see how young people communicated in this context, how much of their texting was rich and positive and supportive, though some was also colorful in other ways (nasty gossip, sexting, texting about substance use, planning antisocial behavior but base rates of these were low).

How has your background and research in psychology prepared you for your role as HHS dean?

I am deeply grateful for my background in psychology because the discipline continues to fascinate me, and I use that expertise daily. My training in clinical psychology has given me experience in having challenging conversations, speaking positively and strategically to try to help people change, and a clear sense of ethics and boundaries. My research expertise makes me sensitive to the pain of social exclusion, which strengthens my commitment to inclusion and diversity. Studying how young people use digital communication and reading what they say on social media and in text messages forces me to understand that online communication and relationships matter a great deal to young people, and to see the possibilities for using digital communication to help university students learn and feel connected to their academic programs. Leading a large, longitudinal research project for many years gave me valuable experience in leading teams, in making the most of individuals’ strengths and letting others lead in their domains of expertise. 

What do you find to be the most rewarding part of being the dean of HHS?

I honestly enjoy so many aspects of the job that it’s hard to choose. I enjoy advocating for this large, broad, dynamic college; helping others understand our identity as a college devoted to understanding and improving human health and quality of life; envisioning what we might become in the future; and thinking creatively about how we can adjust our structures and programs to serve students and support faculty and staff even better. Day to day, what I enjoy most is working with people in HHS and across the university: outstanding staff devoted to the mission of Purdue, our excellent leadership team, and of course, our amazing students. I miss teaching organized classes but relish other opportunities to interact with students, and when I can, help remove obstacles for them. I enjoy thinking creatively about what we can do to enhance student success. I am excited to be working with colleagues across the University on a January Term proposal because I think it will provide opportunities for academic innovation and for students to take classes they really want or need, engage in immersive research experiences or study abroad. 

What is a professional accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud?

As an academic leader, I am proud of my success in building and modifying academic programs to give students even more opportunities to succeed. As a researcher, I am proud that I wrote an authored book at an early career stage, “Social Aggression Among Girls,” and as I said above, I am proud of leading the BlackBerry Project. As much as I am grateful for my administrative and research accomplishments, my lasting professional legacy will be the students I have taught and the faculty and staff I have mentored. I am proud of my ability to support people in working to their strengths, empowering them to lead in their areas of expertise, and helping them to believe in the importance of their ideas and to have faith in what they can accomplish.

                                                                                                                                                                            

Writer: Rebecca Hoffa, rhoffa@purdue.edu