Scientista Spotlight - Meet Sophie Wharton! BA in Psychology, Harvard Class of 2011
December 01, 2011 By Kelsey Cruz
Sophie Wharton, Harvard '11, Psychology/MBB
Two summers ago, Sophie Wharton and her father, Philip Wharton, completed a 100-mile, four-day adventure on the paved trails of Montreal and Quebec. Inspired by Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, the father/daughter duo raised $28,000 for the Central Asia Institute (CAI), an organization that strives to empower communities of Central Asia, promote peace, and convey the importance of these activities globally through literacy and education. Motivated by the CAI and its mission statement, the Whartons rode for better education systems in Pakistan and Afghanistan…on unicycles.
“I learned to unicycle in middle school at a summer camp I attended for a few years with my younger sisters,” Sophie Wharton explained. “I used to clear the dinner table atop my unicycle, play basketball upon it, and other silly things. A few years ago, I taught my dad to ride, and it became our father-daughter activity.”
Wharton, who recently completed the psychology track of the Mind, Brain and Behavior (MBB) program at Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude this past May, has many hobbies besides unicycling. At Harvard, Wharton led campus tours and organized events for the Crimson Key Society, served as a writer and editor for The Harvard Undergraduate Research Journal (THURJ), and organized weekly seminars and large symposiums as president of the Harvard Society for Mind, Brain and Behavior. She was attracted to Harvard by the MBB program, excited by the prospect of studying the mind from multiple perspectives and ended up adding philosophy, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology courses to her psychology workload.
“I am fascinated by the ways in which emotion and motivation can shape how we perceive the world and the types of decisions we make, often without our conscious awareness,” Wharton said. “Many of the things one studies in psychology are relevant and observable in our daily lives.”
Wharton worked in a lab every semester of college and was mentored by Fiery Cushman, a post-doctorate at Harvard who recently began as an assistant professor at Brown. “Over the course of my time in the lab, I was given more responsibility and independence, which culminated in my senior thesis project – a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) study of moral decision-making,” Wharton said. “It was exciting to feel real ownership over my thesis project and be involved in every aspect, from designing the study and running participants to analyzing the results and writing up the paper.”
“In psychology, I think it makes even more sense. In order to understand the human brain and behavior, you need both male and female brains working to undercover their circuitry and functioning.”
Sophie Wharton partaking in her hobby - unicycling!
Wharton’s lab hours and dedication certainly paid off; for her thesis, she won the Thomas Hoopes Prize, the Gordon W. Allport Prize (a departmental prize in psychology), and received a Summa. In fact, her love of research and success on her thesis landed her the position of lab manager for two labs at New York University – the Social Neuroscience Lab and the Social Perception & Evaluation Lab. At NYU, Wharton is involved in a plethora of research projects, including ones that use EEG and fMRI methods. “I help edit manuscripts and grants, and I also have certain administrative duties, such as hiring and supervising undergraduate research assistants and organizing colloquiums with guest speakers,” Wharton said.
Throughout her experience at Harvard and NYU, Wharton has fortunately found a gender balance in the psychology field. “Diversity is important in any field because people of different sexes or backgrounds will contribute unique perspectives and insights to a problem or question,” Wharton said. “In psychology, I think it makes even more sense. In order to understand the human brain and behavior, you need both male and female brains working to undercover their circuitry and functioning.”
Although Wharton has not struggled with gender inequality, she does acknowledge the importance of both women in STEM fields and The Scientista Foundation’s message. While she was at Harvard and considering a career in science, she would have loved the guidance and advice from female scientists that The Scientista Foundation strives to provide. "I've been especially concerned with and interested in how to strike a good work/family balance in academia, and at what phase in one's career it makes the most sense to have children,” Wharton said. “Though not the most pressing issue for me right now, it’s something I certainly think about because I recognize this career may not be the most conducive to having a family, but being an involved mother is going to be a major priority for me in my life.”
As Wharton seeks advice on balancing her future family, her advice for fellow STEM women is simple: get in the lab. Although she worked in the same lab throughout her college years, she worked in a capuchin monkey lab and a human infant lab at Yale over the summer and gleaned new insight and skills.
“I would definitely recommend getting as much research experience as you can,” Wharton suggested. “There is so much fascinating work going on at Harvard, and you’d be surprised how easy it is to get involved if you show real interest. “
Kelsey Cruz is a Magazine Journalism major at Temple University in Philadelphia. Although she always struggled with anything science-related in school, she is fascinated by the intelligence and determination of scientists. She strongly believes in The Scientista Foundation and its vision and hopes its message can influence scientists and women everywhere.