Jillian Franks

March 6, 2024

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Geeking Out With…is a feature in which we talk to GSAS students about their passions. You can check out past installments here.

Jillian Franks is a third-year PhD student in Psychology. Her research examines the neural mechanisms behind empathy biases; in her dissertation work, she explores how cognition affects neural markers for racial ingroup and outgroup empathy biases. She joined Geeking Out With… to discuss her research and the surprising ways in which her passion for theater has informed her work in psychology.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

How did you become interested in studying psychology generally and, more specifically, the area of empathy?

In undergraduate, I was a neuroscience major with a theater minor, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that after graduating. So I did a gap year in theater as an acting intern with The Black Rep in St. Louis under the direction of founder Ron Himes. I went to local schools and performed in plays for students. We did a version of Aesop’s Fables for younger students, and, since The Black Rep focuses on showcasing theater about the African American experience to the public, we did a series about that, told through song, that was aimed at high school students. At the time, I didn’t realize how important the experience would be for my research. I was playing different characters, and that’s what empathy is: putting yourself in someone’s place. I wanted to combine my interest in theater with my interest in neuroscience, so I went on to get my master’s in psychology in Dr. Bettina Casad’s lab, which studied a topic I previously didn’t know existed, social neuroscience. Since I was interested in seeing how people understand each other, it was great that I ended up there and was able to begin to get an understanding of how empathy works.

Now that you’re in the Psychology PhD program, what specific areas are you focusing on?

There are different ways you can look at empathy, including how people respond to others’ emotional pain, how they respond to others’ physical pain, and how they understand others’ thoughts and intentions. The main thing I’m interested in is how empathizing starts in the brain. That’s what Dr. Jennifer Gutsell and other members of the Social Interaction and Motivation lab are looking at now: certain oscillatory patterns in the brain. We think some of this has to do with shared representations; if you’re watching someone perform an action or display emotions, you will see similar activation patterns in your brain’s motor area as the person performing the action. However, we can see differences in these patterns when observing groups that we determine are different from ourselves, whether that be political or racial outgroup members. It doesn't take much for people to develop strong group membership identities.

But I’m also interested in interactions. You have to have interactions if you’re looking for changes in empathy; people have to get to know each other and have positive interactions. I want to know more about what happens in the brain when someone has positive outgroup contact and how that can lead to change.

You came in second in the science category in last year’s Three Minute Thesis competition. Can you tell us more about the research you presented there?

In addition to my main project on racial ingroups and outgroups, I’m working on a project about how people empathize with political outgroup members. What’s interesting about political group membership is that you can manipulate it more than racial ingroups and outgroups; you can tell a study subject that someone they’re observing is either a Democrat or a Republican, which you can’t do with race. In this project, we use an electroencephalogram (EEG) to look at physiological measures of empathy and also look at behavioral measures. The subjects watch emotional videos of political ingroup and outgroup members, and we use the EEG to see how they respond implicitly in different ways. You have to do this kind of research because you can’t always see the differences on the surface. If you ask people to self-report, they might say they get along with everybody, but an implicit measure like the EEG data may beg to differ and show how the subjects don’t empathize with the outgroup members as much as the ingroup members.

What made you want to participate in Three Minute Thesis, and what did you think of the experience?

I love being onstage and I’m always looking for opportunities to perform, even if the performance is of my research. I wanted to participate in my first year, but I didn’t have the research results yet, so I was glad to have the chance in my second year! I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could put my very long project report into a three-minute talk. I met some great people in the process too.

I’m not able to participate this year, but I’m hoping to do so again next year. I might do a totally different talk, using my dissertation material. I’ll be doing research with pre-medical students and looking at technology and empathy. Have you ever been talking to a doctor, trying to tell them about your pain, and they’re busy taking notes on the computer? The US government spent $1.2 billion on an initiative to get hospitals to use electronic health records, but sometimes we roll out technology before we know everything it will do and how it will affect our social interactions. I want to find out more about what happens in the brain when a medical professional is trying to empathize with a patient but also take good notes at the same time.

How has your relationship to your topic evolved as you’ve continued to study it?

I’ve figured out that empathy is such a big umbrella. You have emotional empathy; cognitive empathy, which includes theory of mind, or thinking about other people’s thoughts; and prosocial actions like helping others. There are so many avenues under the big empathy umbrella. At first I thought, “I’ll study empathy,” but now I realize that I can’t address all of the avenues. I’m getting comfortable with that: with the idea of being part of the conversation and finding my own avenue to focus on.

What interventions are you interested in making through your research, perhaps to help address some of the situations in which people display a lack of empathy?

So far, my research shows that we don’t empathize as much with people we see as dissimilar and that there are biases to strong ingroup relations. But I’m hoping I can eliminate some cognitive barriers to empathy. My dissertation looks at cognitive load and how that can impact biases, so, for example, we could lower people’s cognitive load before a multi-group interaction so that they have fewer things to deal with and can focus better. I’m also interested in empathy interventions, or ways to improve empathy. It’s challenging to figure out how these would work in a way that helps more than harms people. I’m interested in seeing what these interventions would be and how long they would take. Could you do a one-time intervention and get someone to have empathy for everyone? Probably not! But I’d like to explore this topic more.

What resources at Brandeis have helped you during your research process?

I’m in Dr. Jennifer Gutsell’s lab, and she really supports my work and my ideas. Other graduate students are very supportive too. If I have questions, I know that I can turn to my community first, and people are happy to share resources and make time to help. I also appreciate the resources of GSAS – with this article and Three Minute Thesis, I’ve been able to share my research in ways I didn’t know I would have the opportunity to before coming here.

When you’re not working on research, what do you like to do with your time?

I like doing the exercise classes at Brandeis. I like attending theater performances around town, although I haven’t been performing myself recently since it’s hard to balance with the PhD. I also like watching YouTube reaction videos and hanging out with friends. I’m from landlocked Missouri, so I like going to the Cape in the summer and seeing the ocean right there!

What advice do you have for other students exploring their passions?

Try to mix your passions together if you can. There might be new ways that you didn’t even know that things are in communication with each other that could open a new research path. I’m about to launch a new study that uses actors and how they understand the characters they’re playing; the actors will portray characters in a video that I will use in other parts of my dissertation project as well. I had no idea it would be possible to explore my theater interest in this academic way. If you have another passion, don’t close the door but see if it’s possible to bring them together.