Associate Professor of Psychology Jennie Pyers’ enthusiastic energy bubbles out of her office on the fourth floor of the science center. A pinboard of memorabilia showcases a photo of a radiant and ecstatic Pyers as lab manager in developmental psychologist Peter de Villier’s lab at Smith College. In that lab, Pyers affirmed her passion for language and cognitive development along with sign language studies.
Born to deaf parents, Pyers was introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) at a young age, but she never expected it to later be her eld of study. She was set on earning her undergraduate degree in art history with a lm studies minor from Smith College. She happened to take a Hampshire College winter session course on the linguistic structure of Sign Language and met a student who worked in de Villier’s lab at Smith College. Soon after, de Villier offered her a work study job in his lab, saving her from washing dishes in the campus dining hall.
Though she was testing children, transcribing data and designing studies, Pyers admitted that she was still set on art history and had no interest in taking any psychology courses. She explained that on their first day at Smith College, students would write down their dream job and secure it in an envelope to be opened after they complete their undergraduate education.
“I think I put something like ‘write for National Geographic.’ I was really interested in writing. I took Art 100 and thought, ‘This is so amazing.’ I felt connected to what I was studying. I was just hooked by the visual medium,” Pyers said.
While she did not have a particular academic interest in psychology courses, she did enjoy her job in de Villier’s lab for personal reasons.
“Having deaf parents was kind of analogous to having immigrant parents,” Pyers explained. “By the end of my senior year, I really missed my family, so it was really nice for me to have this job that connected me to my family.”
When Pyers was getting ready to graduate, she was offered a full-time job as a lab manager in de Villier’s lab. After working there for just one year, she discovered that this eld was one she wanted to pursue.
“Ultimately, I felt like the work I was doing in a psychology lab really sang to me, so I decided to go to graduate school in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley,” Pyers said.
Pyers remarked that her parents were extremely supportive throughout her academic career, even when they did not understand why she kept opting to do research over a getting a job when she was getting her doctorate and post doctorate degrees.
“But they are extremely proud of me. They’ve been very supportive of my research throughout,” she said. “They’ve helped connect me with people and collect data. I’ve been very fortunate.”
At one of the conferences she had attended, Pyers met a fellow Smith College alumna, Ann Senghas, and became inspired to pursue her studies in the newly emerging Nicaraguan Sign Language. She wanted to understand the learning delays that could occur in deaf children who were born to hearing adults but were not introduced to sign language until later in life. This area is what Pyers’ current research focuses on.
Given how a women’s college connection helped her ultimately discover her research passion, Pyers speaks highly of women’s colleges.
“I’m thrilled to be back at a women’s college!” Pyers exclaimed. “I can tell you there is something powerful to be gained from a women’s college. My experience with psychology was gained from hands on experience in a lab at a women’s college, not in a classroom.”
As a Smithie now at Wellesley, she remarks on her unique experience in the Psychology department. She explained that larger universities often have multiple professors studying a certain eld, whereas smaller institutions such as Wellesley only have one individual focusing on a given area.
“Even though there is only one person in each field at Wellesley, I never feel intellectually isolated because we all genuinely care about each other’s research. We find connections and collaborations with our colleagues,” she said.
Pyers said she always knew that her passion was driven by her interaction with research students and participants.
“I love that I get to interact with people, whether it’s my participants or my students. I develop a relationship with my participants to the point where they come back, especially since they’re such a small population. We work with them every year,” she said.
Pyers assisted Dr. Ann Senghas from Barnard College in putting together a panel in Nicaragua to educate teachers and government about Nicaraguan Sign Language. Shortly after gaining widespread news coverage, she explained that it was recognized as an indigenous language of Nicaragua.
“This is really meaningful to me: the work we do has real world application and that really excites me,” she said.