Social scientists trade academic silos for shared workspace

Faculty and grad students in the new Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative have access to two state-of-the-art labs, grants, and a collaborative environment aimed at creating a vibrant research community.

Coren Apicella and Corey Cusimano standing to the side as Geoff Goodwin speaks at a podium.
Penn psychologists Coren Apicella and Geoffrey Goodwin (at podium) co-direct the new Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative, part of mindCORE. Corey Cusimano (center), a grad student in Goodwin’s lab, will also participate. Cusimano studies the ways in which people hold others responsible for their attitudes. (Photo: Yevgeniy Olkhov)

The University of Pennsylvania’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative (SBSI) will be a meeting of the minds—about minds.  

Spearheaded by psychologists Coren Apicella and Geoffrey Goodwin and supported by the interdisciplinary endeavor MindCORE, the new Penn SBSI aims to foster sharing of ideas, resources, and datasets among scientists at the University studying the brain and social decision-making. Borrowing a model used widely in business schools, 19 faculty from six departments in the School of Arts and Sciences and Annenberg School for Communication, as well as a handful of graduate students, will have access to two communal labs and the opportunity for novel collaboration. 

“There are so many people around the University doing social and behavioral science, but there’s been no way to connect them,” says Apicella, an assistant professor in the Psychology Department. “That’s one of the main points of this initiative.” 

SBSI will comprise three parts. The pair of newly renovated, state-of-the-art spaces, currently called the Benjamin Franklin Laboratory and William Penn Laboratory and located in Solomon Labs, have more than a dozen computers each, plus storage for testing samples and in one, a freezer to keep biological samples. Ideally, sharing the physical location will also mean a combined pool of study participants, easing recruitment challenges, and leading to more robust findings that can happen at a quicker pace.  

Second, affiliated graduate students can apply for grants of as much as $3,000, as well as stipends for conference travel and two- to eight-week visits to labs at other institutions. Finally, a monthly brown-bag lecture series will give all SBSI participants the chance to hear what’s happening in this space in a less-structured environment. Annenberg’s Damon Centola gave the first, on Nov. 14; Goodwin says the chance to speak is open to anyone associated with SBSI. 

“It’s a great opportunity for graduate students to present their work to a wider and more diverse audience than they may have been exposed to previously,” he says. 

At a launch event in early November, seven quick grad student presentations showcased the breadth of research topics represented within SBSI. Lacey Wade, a fourth-year doctoral student in Meredith Tamminga’s lab in the Department of Linguistics, spoke about her work on the inextricable link between social context and language. Fourth-year doctoral student Corey Cusimano, from Goodwin’s lab in the Psychology Department, discussed the ways in which people hold others responsible for their attitudes. 

“People believe others have more control over what they think than they do themselves,” Cusimano says. “If I believe in God, I don’t think it’s up to me whether I believe in God. I can’t just stop believing in God. But I think that other people can: They can pick and choose whether or not they think God exists.” 

As the initiative gets off the ground, Apicella and Goodwin are already looking ahead. On their wish list: mobile labs that can travel to a train station, a park—anywhere a researcher wants to conduct fieldwork. And lab coordinator Lindsay Stone is currently building a training program mandatory for any undergraduate who wants to become an SBSI research assistant. The idea is to ensure consistency in the process and to create a match program that pairs undergrads with faculty conducting work that aligns with their interests. 

“I’m hoping the initiative will create a shared, vibrant community among this group of researchers,” Goodwin says. “Most of the time, we have relatively little intersection with one another, but I’m hopeful that it will drive some of our graduate student research and that we’ll get more collaboration between faculty and students across departmental lines.” 

The Benjamin Franklin and William Penn labs are up and running, with sign-up sheets accessible through the SBSI’s website.  

Coren Apicella is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department in the School of Arts and Sciences

Geoffrey Goodwin is an associate professor in the Psychology Department in the School of Arts and Sciences

Meredith Tamminga is an assistant professor in the Linguistics Department in the School of Arts and Sciences

Damon Centola is an associate professor of communication and director of the Network Dynamics Group in the Annenberg School for Communication

Lacey Wade and Corey Cusimano are fourth-year doctoral students in the School of Arts and Sciences.