Though as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Christine Larson planned to be a high school social studies teacher, she noticed after a while that she kept finding herself in one psychology class after another. “I’ve always been absolutely fascinated by emotions and the impact they have on functioning in every area of life,” says Larson, though it wasn’t until she started working in Richard Davidson’s lab – first as an undergraduate, and then as a staff member – that her interest in affective neuroscience truly crystallized. “Once I got to be fully immersed in the research process and see the power of psychophysiological and neuroscience tools to understand normal and abnormal emotional processes, I was hooked,” she says.
After completing her Ph.D. under Davidson, Larson moved to Michigan State University, and then on to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where she’s currently an associate professor. Her lab, which uses a combination of fMRI, ERP, spectral EEG, eyetracking, pupilometry, peripheral psychophysiology, molecular genetic and behavioral measures, focuses on neural correlates of individual differences in emotional response. “Some of the new questions we’re examining in the lab include assessing the genetic moderation of acquisition and extinction of conditioned fear, particularly in genes related to anxiety, and delving deeper into interactions between cognitive and affective processes as they relate to effective emotion regulation and psychopathology,” says Larson. A recent research collaboration with Joe Newman and John Curtin at Wisconsin-Madison and Kent Kiehl at the University of New Mexico also broadened her interest to questions of how attention moderates fear processing in psychopaths. “Conceptually, this has led me to expand my research questions beyond internalizing disorders and think more deeply about disinhibitory pathology,” she says.
“I love to dabble in new areas and new methods, and I hate to feel constricted by technique,” says Larson, of the curiosity and diversity of methods that is reflected in the way she runs her own lab. “I like to have fun, so I try to make the lab a fun and generative place to be. I think most people are more productive and more likely to stick with the potentially grueling grind of grad school if they enjoy their experience in the ‘home base’ of the lab.”
As her lab grows, Larson aims to provide her students with varied experience – both in the roles they play in studies and in the training in methods they receive. “It seems that the field is growing more integrative and that multi-method approaches are becoming more common,” she says. “The technology keeps evolving, that will not change… I feel fortunate that I am able to offer my students the ability to learn different methods so that they have access to the most appropriate tools for their particular research questions.”