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Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology

Psychology Matters

Alumni Matters

wilson By Dana McMakin
DU PhD Psychology Alumn, Class of 2008



As a clinical scientist and cognitive neuroscientist with a dual appointment in a university and hospital setting, I can summarize my career identity as a Jack-of-All-Trades and a Master-of-None. I would have it no other way. The rush of being humbled by how much there is to know, and the subsequent satisfaction I derive from plodding up steep learning curves is what drives me. Beyond the exceptional training I received in DU's clinical science program, a vital ingredient to my career trajectory and continued enthusiasm for my work was shaped by my mentor.

My mentor (2001-2008) was one of DUs finest, Dr. Stephen Shirk. Following my recent transition from a medical school to an arts and sciences department, I am now mentoring graduate students for the first time in my career. When I don't know what to do, I pause and play the game, "What-Would-Stephen-Do?" Every time I play this game, I smile. I smile because the memories I have of Stephen's mentorship are centered around kindness, displayed by his unwavering enthusiasm, support, availability and good humor.

When I try to emulate Stephen's kindness with student mentees, I get stuck. Channeling the unconditional kindness of Stephen is not only difficult, but I also fear that I will be perceived as a pushover, or that I will fail to give my students the critical feedback they need to succeed. These fears are wrong. Because when I pause again and play the "What-Would-Stephen-Do?" game a bit longer, I can see clearly that kindness was the essential vehicle through which Stephen delivered some of the most exacting, brilliant and productive scientific feedback of my career.

By providing such a generously kind environment, Stephen allowed me and my peers to explore new ideas safely, to challenge and be challenged, and to dare to seek new solutions to old problems. My comfort today in working across disciplines and settings is undoubtedly shaped by this early mentoring experience.

We are living in a polarized time when our nation and our world could benefit from more kindness. Perhaps one lesson we can all take from the legacy of Dr. Stephen Shirk, who retires this year, is to view kindness in academics and beyond not as an adversary to critical feedback and progress, but as the social lubricant that can push us all to explore our beliefs more deeply, challenge ourselves and others, and find new pathways for progress.