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Breaking down barriers and opening doors for marginalized groups

University of Utah social psychologist Jacqueline Chen has long studied the positive role inclusivity plays in professional and social networks.

Last month, her scholarship was recognized by the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS), which named her the winner of its inaugural Kellina Craig-Henderson IDEA (inclusivity, diversity, equity and accessibility) Award.

Jacqueline Chen

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Chen’s research explores how people perceive and behave toward outgroup members and how to promote understanding of diverse intergroup interactions, according to FABBS. Using methodological and theoretical approaches from the subfields of cultural psychology, social identity and social cognition, her work reveals the social psychological processes that underscore people’s reactions to diversity.

“Studying unconventional identities is actually really important for advancing our science. In the multiracial perception space, a lot of this work by others and myself help to highlight the assumptions that Americans make about race every single day,” Chen said in an online interview with FABBS president-elect Jeffrey Zacks, a professor at Washington University. “We just aren’t aware of it because when we don’t have trouble placing people into racial categories and using those racial categories in social perception, then we don’t question the assumptions.”

The FABBS award is named in honor of Kellina Craig-Henderson, who led the National Science Foundation’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate from in 2022, following 16 years of service with the NSF. She passed away last year. Like Chen’s, her research explored the importance of diversity in scientific endeavors.

The association also highlighted Chen’s commitment to mentoring and building inclusive networks of students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Chen is the principal investigator of the Social Cognition and Intergroup Perception (SCIP) Laboratory, which studies intergroup relations and diversity. She and her collaborators established the American Multiracial Faces Database (AMFD), a database of multiracial face photos that provides behavioral science researchers with more diverse stimuli and increases the representation of multiracial individuals in research.

“The broadest lesson that my work illustrates is that our institutions and practices can inadvertently marginalize certain identities and experiences,” Chen said. “So thinking carefully about the policies we have, the norms and assumptions we have guiding us about social interaction and social relations is really important for fostering inclusion.”

Her recent research touches on how faculty behavior affects whether students stick with STEM fields. Chen is most excited about exploring what she called “interpersonal pathways to inclusion.”

“We know from a rich literature that intergroup contact really can help to break down barriers, so it can reduce prejudice among majority group members and increase inclusion among minority or marginalized group members. So I want to understand more about what makes these relationships work versus backfire,” she said. “One area that I’m really interested in is understanding what it means to be a good ally. We have initial work on allyship to the LGBT community. I’m hoping to generalize some of this knowledge to other types of marginalized groups in other contexts.”