Date published: 10/9/2017

The Health Psychology Area is delighted to announce that Dr. Janet Tomiyama was promoted to Associate Professor this year and was among the five psychological scientists awarded the 2017 Association for Psychological Science (APS) Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions. The Janet Taylor Spence Award, named for APS’s first elected president, recognizes early-career scientists whose cutting-edge work promises to advance psychological science. Here is an interview with Professor Tomiyama, published in the APS Observer.

A. Janet Tomiyama

University of California, Los Angeles

Observer: Please describe your research interests.

Tomiyama: I study why we eat. Hunger — the obvious reason — is actually one of the least important causes of eating, which I find fascinating. My lab (the Dieting, Stress, & Health, or DiSH, lab) focuses on two main drivers: stress and weight stigma. We take a biobehavioral approach, meaning we care equally about the biology of people (e.g., metabolic health, stress hormones) and their behavior (e.g., dieting, comfort eating).

Observer: What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?

Tomiyama: In 4th grade, I moved from Pennsylvania to Tokyo and spent my formative years attending the American School in Japan. In school, I was taught the dangers of eating disorders and the importance of maintaining a healthy body image. Among my family in Japanese culture, however, comments such as “You’ve gained weight” were interchangeable with greetings such as “Hello.” How was it, I wondered, that I didn’t have an eating disorder? For that matter, why didn’t everyone in Japan have an eating disorder? That spurred my interest initially, and many years later my first publication was on cultural contributions to eating disorder pathology. When it came time to decide on graduate school, I faced the impossible choice of going to Yale University to work with Kelly Brownell in the clinical program or to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to work with Traci Mann in the Social/Health program. That was a fork in the road when I decided to veer away from eating disorders to instead research eating behavior in general.

Observer: Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?

Tomiyama: I am very proud of my NSF CAREER grant. It funds my research on weight stigma for 5 years, but equally importantly, it funds a summer research intensive program for underrepresented minority students at community and 2-year colleges. These students are rarely exposed to psychological research, and the program also provides career development training. We need to get more underrepresented students into the research pipeline, and hopefully this program will help.

As for factors that helped lay the groundwork — I am an unabashed zealot about the Faculty Success Program offered by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. I learned so many important lessons, such as how to create a daily writing habit, how to say no, and how to let go of perfectionism, from that program. As a result, I now have proudly achieved tenure while sleeping 8 hours a night and not working nights or weekends. It’s this program, plus an annual flu shot, plus great mentors, collaborators, and students, plus luck that contribute the lion’s share of variance to any success I’ve experienced.

Observer: What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?

Tomiyama: Traci Mann, my graduate advisor, is the reason I love my job. She approaches science with a style that is equal parts rigor and humor. If you don’t believe me, get her book, Secrets from the Eating Lab (I love her so much that I will shill her book unasked). Elissa Epel, my postdoctoral advisor, gave me my biology chops, taught me to revel in complexity, and correctly identified that I should marry Josh, now father to our baby, Clark. In her lab, I met Eli Puterman, my academic husband and now father to many coauthored papers. I would not have tenure if not for Annette Stanton, my career mentor at UCLA, who has supported me in my research, teaching, mentoring, and service endeavors and has plied me with champagne at critical moments. Annette is also part of what I secretly call the Fab Five — my colleagues in the Health Psychology area at UCLA that include Julie Bower, Chris Dunkel Schetter, Rena Repetti, and Ted Robles. I cannot imagine a warmer and more supportive cadre of colleagues. Nancy Adler and Brenda Major are my big-thinking heroes and among my embarras de richesses of women role models that I seek to emulate. Greg Miller: a department chair as if out of ancient folklore, whose powers and support are seemingly boundless and who is as accessible as a genie appearing from a magic lamp. Finally, I am continually awed by the brilliance and talent of my students, who work so very hard but still manage to remain cheerful and celebrate things like National Guacamole Day.

Observer: What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?

Tomiyama: I want to find ways for people to eat healthy without being tortured about it — that is, avoiding the agony of dieting and going ahead and doing a little comfort eating, but in a healthy way. It would be great if fruits and veggies could replace ice cream and chocolate as comfort foods, and I’ve been funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to see if that works. For those of you who are skeptics: We conducted a survey of UCLA undergraduates, and they ranked apples as more comforting than apple pie — the quintessential comfort food!

I also want to find a way to eradicate the antifat attitudes that are running rampant in today’s society. I fear it will be a tough job — I made one tiny foray into this by testing a perspective-taking manipulation and it failed miserably.

Observer: What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Tomiyama: Personally, it’s fun to share this award with Paul Eastwick, as we sang together in The Chordials, a coed a cappella group at our undergraduate alma mater Cornell University. We even shared a solo — “To Be With You,” by Mr. Big.

Professionally, it’s thrilling! One criterion for Full Professor (my next big milestone) is whether you’ve established yourself at the national level, and this will go a long way toward demonstrating that. It’s also wonderful to see that health psychology, among the youngest of the many fields of psychology, is valued by psychological scientists.

Honestly, I am dumbstruck. I would never have thought myself Janet Taylor Spence Award material were it not for a mysterious email from a shadow cabinet of scholars that encouraged me to consider the nomination. Thanks to this experience, I vow to think of and nudge strong scholars to put themselves forward whenever I see an award announcement pop up. And I urge anyone reading this to not sell yourself short and remember the lotto motto: “You can’t win if you don’t play.”