“If you’d asked me when I was 18 what I’d be doing in 10 years,” says Lisa Harvey, “I'd either have said I have no idea or I’d have guessed and been completely wrong. I’ve very much made a career of trying the next thing and thinking about what was exciting to me, what I was passionate about and moving in that direction.” A math and social science major in college, Harvey found her direction as an undergraduate. Her classes, honors thesis, and an internship at a hunger organization helped her hone in on her specific path. She went on to get a doctorate in clinical psychology and today she studies preschoolers with behavior problems and their families.
Many professors come from families where they are the only scientists, but not Harvey’s parents. She was born in Pakistan, where her father was working as a physics teacher at a small college. They stayed there five years, long enough for Harvey and her sister to be born, and then moved back to Connecticut, where her father taught high school physics and her mother, a chemistry major in college, became a computer programmer.
Harvey applied to Dartmouth College as a math major but ultimately received her degree in math and social science. “I had been thinking about math careers,” she says. “I wanted to do something where I could apply my math. I wasn’t interested in doing theoretical math. I was more interested using math to help the world.” She saw the next step one day when she was flipping through the college brochure of majors. “I saw they had a math and social science major, which was a perfect combination of what I was interested in, math and psychology,” she says. “It’s an unusual major that most places don't have. It was a perfect thing for me. I remember opening the page and seeing those words on the page thinking, there I am, that's me.”
Dartmouth didn’t have clinical psychology faculty at the time, so Harvey did her honors thesis on the sensation of perception. “I became interested in auditory perception and how we use our attention in order to hear sounds more easily,” she says. “But what I really fell in love with was the process of answering questions that nobody knows the answer to. Here's this thing and nobody knows exactly how it works. Why is it that if I'm listening for a tone of a certain frequency, I can hear it only if I'm specifically looking for that frequency. If I’m attending to a different type of tone I actually won't hear it, I won't detect it. The idea of trying to answer a question that nobody in the world knows the answer to is really exciting and really fun.”
She loved the thesis process, she says, and she enjoyed using the math part of her coursework to focus on classes that taught her how to use mathematical modeling to answer problems and questions in various social science fields. But she want to use the skills she was developing to answer questions that would directly address the challenges that people face. “Sitting in math courses,” she says, “I felt like I was just not seeing the application. I was thinking, how can I shift more toward a direction that I am excited about.”
That’s where the psychology piece of the puzzle fell into place. Funded through a campus internship program, Harvey worked with families and kids in poverty through a hunger organization in rural North Carolina. Today she does both—helps families through her work on the early development of ADHD, in which she uses statistics to answer important questions about children’s development.
What Harvey likes about being a scientist is that same passion she had doing her honors thesis: answering questions that nobody knows the answers to. “And in particular,” she says, “thinking about answering questions that really matter in people’s lives. I'm particularly drawn to questions that are very translational and that will be clinically useful.”