Chapter 02:  A Path to the Emerging Field of Health Psychology

Title

Chapter 02: A Path to the Emerging Field of Health Psychology

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Description

In this chapter, Dr. Cohen talks about his educational path and the evolution of his interests. Because of his interest in marine biology, he attended Reed College (Portland, Oregon, BA conferred, 1987), but was uncomfortable with the institution's policy about early specialization. He explains how he gravitated toward courses in psychology, pharmacology, and physiology, eventually becoming a psychology major. He talks about the professors he worked with and animal experiments he helped conduct on drugs and behavior. He notes that his thesis on the role of alcohol in disrupting complex behavior was published in APA.

Identifier

CohenL_01_20160504_C02

Publication Date

5-4-2016

Publisher

The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Educational Path; The Researcher; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; Understanding Cancer, the History of Science, Cancer Research

Transcript

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So tell me this. Why aren't we sitting in your restaurant in New York City doing this interview? Or why aren't we sitting in the kitchen in your farm someplace because you've been growing organic grains for the slow dough movement? How come we're not doing that? How come we're sitting at MD Anderson?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

The restaurant is an easy answer. But I sometimes wonder why I'm not sitting on the farm in Italy instead of being in Houston and leading a different life. So in university I started college, I went to Reed College.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Why did you choose Reed?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

It was my reach school and I got in was one of the reasons. I didn't know much about -- my dad was American and he went to Columbia as an undergrad at 16, just a minor, high achiever, and then went to graduate school in Berkeley and then at 20 he got a job, assistant professor at Yale. So luckily I didn't know too much of that early on because or else it would have been how am I ever going to live up to that.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

The Anxiety of Influence.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Sixteen and you go to college, it's really -- he said he was too young. And of course sending your kid to New York City from Memphis, Tennessee. He's a good old boy from the South. So I didn't know much about the college. I did very poorly in standardized tests because the school I went to was a -- you know Post Oak here, Post Oak Montessori. It'd be classified as an alternative education school, so we focused more on substance than on those sorts of tests. So I didn't have a ton of options for colleges. But I only applied to the states because I knew I wanted something small and had to be intimate, personal, enriching. And Reed was a fabulous fit for me and --

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Did you think you were going to go into the sciences?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Yeah, I was always interested in actually marine biology.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Now that surprises me, given what you told me about your grandmother and the whole lifestyle you were attracted to. Why not the humanities?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

I had no interest in the humanities. I was always interested in marine biology, partly because of being an avid scuba diver from the age of 12, 13. And so went to Reed with the idea of biology major, with the end goal of medicine.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Why?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

I don't know. I knew you were going to ask that.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, I'm not trying to be aggressive. It's interesting.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

I'm not sure why. Why medicine? So there was one -- no, I guess that wasn't. No. I don't know. I was always interested in health and in medicine. But more from the science side. But when I got to Reed, Reed was extremely strong. It's a liberal arts college but extremely strong in the sciences. At that point it was ranked as the number one biology program for liberal arts colleges. So not comparing to Stanford or Harvard of course. But the like category. So very strong in the sciences they were considered. When they originally founded the college they wanted to call it the Reed Institute of Technology comparable to Caltech.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, I didn't know that.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

But it evolved into being this more liberal arts college. So I started in biology. And very early on it was clear that I had to not only have that major declared, but even within biology, I had to choose who I was going to work with. So Reed, the best metaphor is it's like a prep school for grad school, 80% or 85% of the graduates go on and get a subsequent degree. And a huge percentage PhDs or MDs. So like grad school, you specialize within your specialty. So I had to choose did I want to focus in evolutionary biology or cell biology. And I didn't want to do that. I wasn't even sure if -- the amount of work that I was going to have to do in biology and how focused I was going to have to be for my four years really cut out a lot of other opportunities. I was not so thrilled about chemistry and the prospect of having to do organic chemistry was frightening and it was a -- organic chemistry is notoriously a difficult program, but the average for the organic chem exams was 24%. And it just didn't resonate. If the average was 24% and the best kid couldn't even get half of the exam questions right, what are you teaching? This doesn't make sense. Do you want them to actually learn?

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Or even why are you teaching.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Yeah. And is your method of teaching -- it almost seemed -- anyway that's an aside. But it became clear I had to specialize, and I wasn't interested in specializing. And a friend of mine said, "Well, I just took psychopharmacology in the psych department and it was all medically oriented. Psychopharm. It was the pharmacology of the body essentially. I didn't even know what that really meant. So I hadn't taken psych 101, but because I had the bio and the chem I was able to take psychopharmacology. And then there was a psychophysiology course. And then I got totally turned on to psychology and the link between psychology and biology.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Now was it kind of a new field at the time or growing field?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Well, psychophysiology and psychopharmacology weren't that new. But health psychology, which is a course that I took in the psych department, was relatively new at that time. And I was looking on my bookshelf because I thought maybe I had my original health psych book. And so then I switched out of biology and became a psych major, with a strong emphasis, and working with two professors in particular, one was a behavioral psychologist who was a graduate student of B. F. Skinner's, and then the other one was the psychopharm psychophysiology person.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

What were their names? Do you recall their names?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Yeah, Allen Neuringer. I think he's still a professor there. And Dell Rhodes as in Rhodes scholar. So Allen was the student of B. F. Skinner's. So he had quite the pedigree from Harvard and all that. So I guess it was in my junior year where really my psych career really took off. And I just was embedded in doing these experiments. It was all animal. I did some human research but primarily it was animal research and looking at the effects of drugs on behavior and understanding the experimental method and how to design studies and collect data. My undergraduate thesis we published in one of the top APA journals. I actually didn't even know that that was that meaningful, because there was so much high quality work being done around me. After, I realized oh, most people don't publish their undergraduate work in top peer-reviewed journals.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

What was the project you worked on, the thesis topic?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Allen Neuringer's focus was looking at the concept of variability and whether you could teach animals to be variable. And at the time I didn't really understand the concept behind that, and issues around creativity. And so he had developed a paradigm. It was well known in the behavioral operant conditioning world of being able to train animals to be variable. It's easy to train them to do right right left left food right right left left food. But we were able to teach these animals to get food they had to do a pattern that was different than their last 10 patterns. And then being interested in drugs and that kind of thing and the impacts on health. What would alcohol do in this situation? And so I did a study with pigeons and a study with rats showing that alcohol actually will disrupt their ability to engage in, learn, and maintain this more complex behavior of understanding the principles of the reward system.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Interesting.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

So graduate from Reed.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

And that was 1987 you got your BA.

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Chapter 02:  A Path to the Emerging Field of Health Psychology

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