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Her Moment to Shine

Aprajita MohantyAssistant Professor Aprajita Mohanty named a ‘Rising Star’ by the Association for Psychological Science

Aprajita Mohanty, assistant professor of clinical psychology in the Department of Psychology in Stony Brook University’s College of Arts and Sciences, has been selected as a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) for her work with emotion, attention and perception.

The APS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of scientific psychology and its representation at the national and international levels. Every two years, it recognizes a new class of movers and shakers who are propelling psychological science in new directions.

“Rising Stars are chosen by a select group of the field’s most distinguished scientists and educators,” said Scott Sleek, director of news at APS. “We regard these people as early-career scientists who are conducting groundbreaking research and whose findings and innovative approaches to research methodology place them at the forefront of the next generation of psychological scientists.”

According to Dan Klein, professor and chair in Stony Brook’s Department of Psychology, Mohanty truly is a rising star. “Aprajita has deep expertise in both clinical psychology and cognitive neuroscience, and her basic research on the interplay of attention and emotion informs her clinical research on the neural substrates of schizophrenia and anxiety.”

Mohanty’s research focuses on the brain mechanisms of how we use emotional information to guide our attention and perception.
“Imagine that you are walking on a lush wooded mountainous trail in Montana,” said Mohanty, “and suddenly you see a large brown furry creature staring at you. Imagine how quickly you would detect this grizzly bear!” Evolutionarily, she said, our brains are wired to quickly perceive threats that just pop up out of nowhere.

“However, our life is filled with cues that warn us that threat is coming up,” she said, “like road signs saying ‘accident ahead’ or ‘icy roads ahead.’ Imagine that you are walking on a lush wooded mountainous trail in Montana, and you see a sign saying, ‘You are in grizzly country. Please be cautious.’ A grizzly bear is not in front of you, but your brain starts to prepare so when you actually encounter a grizzly, you will be quick to detect it and do something about it.”

Evolutionarily, she said, our brains are wired to quickly perceive threats that just pop up out of nowhere.Mohanty is studying how these anticipatory processes work: How does the brain prepare for threat? How does the brain represent the threatening stimulus, even when it is not present in front of us? How does the brain then use this threat-related information to sharpen our perception and attention?

“While this research is important in understanding just how normal people use threat-related information to guide perception and attention,” said Mohanty, “it also is useful for understanding anxiety, particularly worry. Worry does not require the actual physical stimulus to be present; rather the person worries about things that will happen in the future … hence my research that focuses on anticipatory processes has direct relevance to understanding threat processing in worry.”

The other aspect of Mohanty’s work is how we use cognitive strategies to remain goal-focused in the face of emotional distractors.

“So imagine the grizzly bear again but in a zoo,” she explained. “You are sitting in front of the cage and taking an important phone call. You know that the bear is threatening, but you are safe, hence your brain will use certain strategies to inhibit threat processing and focus on your phone call.” Mohanty studies how those strategies are implemented in the brain of people who have anxiety and those who don’t.

Mohanty was born in India and completed her undergraduate work there. After earning a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, she did postdoctoral work in cognitive neuroscience at Northwestern University. Two years ago, she joined the faculty at Stony Brook.

She credits her father with exposing her to psychology and brain function at a very early age. ”My father is a neurosurgeon and an avid reader and would frequently bring home books related to the brain,” she said. “My interest was piqued by the anatomical renderings of the brain, pictures of interesting tumors, and hearing about interesting psychological sequela following brain injury.”

Looking ahead, Mohanty would like to extend findings from her basic science program to emotion/cognition interactions in anxiety and the schizophrenia spectrum. Her goal is to develop a strong program of translational research in this area.

Mohanty’s “Rising Star” profile appears in the May/June issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s magazine, the Observer.

By Patricia Sarica; photo by Sam Levitan


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