Fresh Faculty: Elizabeth Kneeland ’10

Elizabeth Kneeland ’10 is new to the college this semester as an assistant professor of psychology. Photo Courtesy of Amherst College.

Elizabeth Kneeland ’10 is an assistant professor of psychology. She received a bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology from Amherst College in 2010 and a doctorate in philosophy and clinical psychology from Yale University in 2018. After working at McClean Hospital in Boston, she began teaching at the college in July. 

Q: How did you become interested in psychology?

A: I just always found the questions that we talk about in psychology courses so interesting. Why do people think the way that they do? How do our perceptions change? I became interested in clinical psychology mid-way through my junior year [when] I was home for J-term. I was thinking, do I want to go to medical school? I was kind of leaning that way, and I was having this conversation with my dad, and he told me about clinical psychology, which is kind of like the medical area of psychology. That was a lightbulb moment for me, so I found a job at a clinic. I wrote a cognitive psychology thesis, and things just kind of fell into place after that. I wanted the ability to help people, especially people who are struggling with mental illness, and I think even though I became more teaching oriented instead of research oriented, those questions are still the same. How can we get a better understanding of why people are in distress psychologically, and how can we do the best to help them?

Q: Has the pandemic changed the way you view the importance of psychology?

A: I think it’s opened up the conversation about mental health struggles. We’ve all been quarantining, and there’s all this overall uncertainty and economic uncertainty, and I think it’s a silver lining that it’s now maybe more normalized to talk about mental health struggles. We’re probably on the cusp of a pretty big surge in mental health issues, so I think that’s one way that psychology will manifest itself in the pandemic. Clinical psychology — depression, anxiety, substance abuse — it all seems like it’s rising. I think the pandemic has also pushed us as a field to be more open to telehealth, to get therapy to people who can’t come into an office. That was always an issue, even before the pandemic. I think it’s pushing us as a field to think about how we can disseminate evidence-based treatments to people who really need them. I think hopefully that will be a lasting shift in the field.

Q: What drew you to teaching at Amherst in particular?

A: The research space and the research support is really incredible here. You’re not just running around doing undergraduate research, but the teaching and the mentoring should also be high quality, and both of those things are valued here. I think sometimes at different, larger universities the research is much more prioritized. Being able to get in the classroom and kind of mentor students the same way that I was once mentored and making sure they have that passion for psychology, that’s really the experience that I had as an undergraduate with having access to professors and having small classes, so you can have those types of discussions and debates. From what I remembered of what an Amherst class looked like and felt like, it was what I wanted my own teaching environment to be like.

Q: How does it feel to come back to Amherst?

A: It has been ten years, so I think a lot happened in that time. My husband actually went to Amherst, and we met here. We got married in that time, and I have two young kids. So a lot has happened in that decade. But also a lot has kind of stayed the same. And it’s nice to come back to a place that’s familiar. My whole family, we all like to be outside a lot. We’ve probably gone on at least one hike a week. I always find being outside so rejuvenating. I think just the lifestyle of being back out in Western Massachusetts really fits with what my husband and I, and hopefully our kids, like to do. I think it’s really like a dream come true to be back in a lot of ways. Amherst was a really transformative experience for me so I’m hoping that if I can just pave that forward in any way, then I’ll be happy.

Q: What was your favorite Val meal when you went to Amherst?

A: I remember there was a big uproar here when they didn’t have breakfast cereal at dinner anymore. I don’t know if I had a favorite. I feel like some of their soups were pretty good, the tortilla soup especially. Also the brunch. They always had a good Sunday afternoon brunch. I’d sit for hours on Sunday mornings in Val. I did like to have one dining hall, because you get to see everyone and catch up. Hopefully that will be back for the freshman one day.

Q: What are you currently researching?

A: We know that how people regulate or manage their emotions can put them more or less at risk for psychological disorders, things like depression or anxiety or substance abuse disorders. There have been a bunch of studies on that. What I got interested in during graduate school is what inclines someone to cope a certain way. One psychological factor that my research is focused on is the belief that people have about what their emotions are like, specifically if they see their emotions as malleable and changeable things are under their control, or as fixed, static things that they can’t really do anything about. My research process clarifies that overall, it seems like having a more malleable view of emotion is associated with more active emotion regulation efforts, and with lower levels of things like depression and anxiety. The newer line of research for me is a parallel to that, but with physical pain. The way that people think about physical pain, how much pain they’re in and their stress related to the pain. 

Q: Why are you interested in studying this?

A: I am interested in how difficulties managing emotions relate to substance abuse and substance issues. My clinical work is all with treating individuals with substance abuse disorders, so I wanted to try to bridge my research work with my clinical work.

Q: What are some of the things keeping you grounded during this time of uncertainty?A: For spring and early summer I really was mostly doing childcare. My husband and I were kind of tag teaming working remotely and watching the kids. It definitely felt really difficult, because it was a shift from working full-time and doing research. But now that I can look back on that time, it was nice because [my kids] changed so much from March to July, and I probably won’t have that consistent time with them as they get older and older.