As a social psychology expert who studies people’s beliefs and attitudes toward social groups, loves science, and has a passion for using science to inform social equality, Nilanjana Dasgupta, who is known as Buju, is a great example of following your heart in college and not getting locked into anything too soon.
Growing up in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, Dasgupta wanted to be a medical doctor. But as she was finishing high school she knew she was interested in a broader liberal arts experience than she would find as a pre-med student in India. So she followed her older sister to Smith College to study biology. She stumbled on neuroscience and psychology while taking a broad array of courses across multiple disciplines, and fell in love with both disciplines. She wanted to combine both into one major that focused on social cognitive neuroscience, an interdisciplinary field that didn’t exist at the time, but came into existence a decade after she graduated from college.
“I ended up majoring in both psychology and neuroscience. Early on at Smith I realized that I enjoyed research that focused on the mind sciences. The idea of conducting experiments to understand how the human mind works was utterly fascinating to me. That’s when I realized I wanted to go to grad school and get a PhD. The question was, a PhD in what? I had to choose either psychology or neuroscience, because the hybrid PhD program didn’t exist at the time. I ended up tipping toward psychology—specifically social cognition.”
Dasgupta went straight to graduate school at Yale University after she got her BA, in part because she was on a foreign-student visa and it made sense to go straight through rather than change her immigration status. She had intellectual reasons as well, she hastens to add: “it was clear to me that a BA wasn’t enough; in order to do scientific research I needed deeper training. So there was no point in taking time off since I knew what I wanted to do. So I jumped into a PhD program with both feet, If I had been less sure about what I wanted to do, I would have taken a year or two between college and PhD.”
While she loved graduate school academically, there were some unexpected obstacles. “In my first year I went from the top of the pile as an undergrad to bottom as a first-year grad student, and that transition was something I hadn't anticipated,” she says. Moreover, she was studying social cognition that initially seemed too “micro” and removed from the real world than she had been looking for. “I wanted to get a PhD because I was interested in the causes and effects of inequality and evidence-based solutions,” she says. “I spent the first two years of graduate school wondering if getting a doctorate in social psychology was the right choice for me and, more generally, if being an academic was the right choice for me.”
She kept at it despite her doubts and with time her discomfort resolved. “At the end of the third year, I thought, ah, I get it! I like this type of experimental research, I see the connection between the data it generates and its implications for real world social problems, and I’m good at it. I became more willing to do small-scale lab experiments to grow a body of knowledge about a psychological phenomenon with the understanding that someday in the future I would apply that knowledge to a bigger playing field.”
Much of that research has to do with understanding how decision-makers’ judgments of other individuals are subtly, unconsciously, biased by group stereotypes. And sometimes those stereotypes get internalized to influence individuals’ own academic and professional choices. As the college’s Director of Faculty Equity and Inclusion, Dasgupta uses that research to work with faculty and administrators to help them and their student understand how stereotypes sometimes influence academic decision-making—it influences who we view as successful scientists, who we view as having the potential to succeed in science. She is inspired to be a mentor and teacher because of how she was inspired by her professors and advisors at Smith and Yale. “I want to do that at UMass Amherst for my students,” she says. “I know it makes a difference to our students in the way it did for me.”
"I advise undergraduates to explore as widely as possible—learn just for the heck of learning”—during their time in college. “This opportunity doesn’t come back,” Dasgupta says. “Don’t narrowly focus on your intended major. You might be surprised if you fall in love with a class which then opens a totally new pathway! As the result of doing that, I ended up choosing something I didn’t expect.”