Professor delights in students, also tends ‘rat bar’

She’s a native Easterner, born in Rochester, New York, and college-educated in Massachusetts — B.A. in psychology from Smith College, 1969 (summa cum laude) and M.A. and Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, 1972 and 1974, respectively.

Coming to WSU in 1974 as an assistant professor, it was the first time Frances McSweeney had ever been west of Erie, Pennsylvania. But as an outdoors person, she loves the Pacific Northwest, which, she says, has a good reputation back east. The environment is attractive, with nicer weather than Rochester.

“I think it’s easier to move from the east to the west, than the other way,” she comments.

At WSU, she advanced to associate professor in 1979, full professor in 1983 and soon after chaired the psychology department.

McSweeney enjoys tennis, and says Pullman summers are ideal for the sport. She also likes contemporary movies, music and dining with friends. Her professional passions are research and her students.

A love of research

This distinguished professor is a leader in the area of animal learning. She’s given 26 invited addresses, written more than 100 articles and 90 paper presentations, and been awarded 15 research grants.

McSweeney has reviewed grant proposals for two divisions of the National Institute of Mental Health, currently serves as associate editor of one international journal and sits on the editorial boards of four others. The Association for Behavior Analysis counts her as a governing council member. She also sits on the board of directors for the Society of the Advancement of Behavior Analysis.

McSweeney explains the difference between experimental and clinical psychology. “Experimental” psychologists study normal animals to determine the laws that govern their behavior. “Clinical” psychologists investigate problematic behaviors and apply their results to real-world human problems.

She specializes in the experimental.

McSweeney relinquished her position as department chair, after eight years, so that she could get back to “making scientific contributions.” She delights in discovering knowledge, something she says WSU facilitates.

“I appreciate that WSU offers lots of lab space,” she comments. “Federal regulations (on animal research) are easier to meet in uncramped quarters, and there’s room for experiment chambers and computer-control equipment.”

Her work involves understanding behavior patterns by examining the influence of reinforcers. Don’t picture Pavlov’s dogs; she works with rats and pigeons. She has found that the value of a conventional reinforcer (e.g., food, water) changes systematically with its repeated consumption. Animals probably “sensitize” (initially desire) and then “habituate” (grow indifferent) to the sensory properties of a reinforcer, altering its ability to support behavior. This finding may have practical application in understanding substance abuse, obesity and other motivational phenomena in humans.

One of the reinforcers she plans to study is alcohol (ethanol). She jokes about running a “rat bar,” but then muses that mice, actually, tend to like the occasional “cocktail” more than rats.

A love of students

“I enjoy working with students. They are endlessly interesting,” she says. Young and enthusiastic, their questions keep her thinking, she adds.

Some past students in whom she takes pride include future seminar speaker Richard Ettinger and current WSU faculty members Christine Paxson and Samantha Swindell. Her current students show exceptional promise as well. McSweeney is known for mentoring female graduate students.

“Psychology is a popular major,” she says, “there are lots of students in it.” But not as many as she would like to see, she adds, especially in the experimental side. Job opportunities are available for the psychology graduate, from B.A. to Ph.D. Drug companies, insurance firms and research labs all have a need. She says current estimates indicate two jobs for every behavior analyst.

Award winner

Responding to the Sahlin award, McSweeney says, “It’s a real honor to be chosen. I’m grateful for the help of phenomenally good faculty. It’s been a group effort, and I appreciate the support from colleagues, students and WSU.”

Congratulations, Fran McSweeney!