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Grinnell alum discusses mental health

Photo by Saw Min Maw
Photo by Saw Min Maw
Photo by Saw Min Maw

Daniel S. Pine ’85 is currently Chief of the Section on Development and Affective Neuroscience of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Intramural Research Program. The NIMH is a biomedical research institution and agency of the United States government, responsible for health-related studies. After graduating from Grinnell with a degree in anthropology, he went on to the University of Chicago to earn his medical degree. He then spent 10 years in training and research on child psychiatry at Columbia University. His areas of expertise include biological and pharmacological aspects of mood, anxiety and behavioral disorders in children, as well as in adults. Dr. Pine’s research group is actively using information of brain function to develop novel treatments for emotional problems. On Wednesday, March 5, he gave a lecture titled “Seeking the Origins of Mental Illness and Finding Our Humanity.” The S&B’s Mineta Suzuki ’17 sat down with Pine to discuss his career path, how to cope with stress and his discipline as a physician.


You majored in anthropology. How did the academic experience shape your career path?

Anthropology is very interested in trying to find [answers for] complex questions. So, that was very much part of anthropology. It wasn’t as applied as something like medicine, but there was a sense that part of the purpose of trying to understand answers for the questions was to do something beneficial for people. So, it actually resonated quite deeply with medicine in general, but psychiatry in particular.


Your research focuses on investigating relationships between brain function and mental illnesses. How did you become interested in this field?

As a physician, you are always … interested in the interface between science and public health. So, all the areas of research in medicine involve scientific applications. I think I became interested in psychiatry because the problem was particularly complex and relatively little was known about [it]. And they were also very broad in that they … clearly involve things related to medicine, but they also involve things beyond medicine—things like society, culture, experience and development. Having a field that was in medicine combined with science and health related inquiries, with the focus on complex problems where little was known, that’s what interested me. And Grinnell, as a place … embraces that [principle]. Broad field, complex questions … looking at things from different perspectives. Psychiatry is very much about that.


In a NIMH video, you talked about how your study can contribute to increasing resilience to PTSD in soldiers. What are some other examples of people who will benefit from your research?

It’s mostly people who have mental illness. And the main kinds of mental illnesses that I’m interested in alleviating … involve anxiety. Anxiety can be a normal reaction. It’s the feeling that we have when we’re in danger. There are a lot of times when we have that feeling and it’s adaptive, it helps us cope with the danger and it keeps us safe. There are other times when we feel anxious and it’s maladaptive. We feel anxious in times when there really is no danger. We might worry about a test on the day of the test, but [people with mental disorders] keep worrying about it. Anxiety disorders are problems where people get nervous and afraid in situations where there is no danger. I like to learn how to help people with those problems.


It is often said that different cultures define mental illness differently. Do you think psychiatrists should have a cultural or humanistic insight in order to pursue a more global treatment?

Yeah. I think that is important in all areas of medicine, not just for psychiatrists … but for all kinds of physicians. The important thing to know for psychiatry, as I talked about a little bit in the talk, is that a culture has a particularly profound influence on behavior. And since vital aspects of mental disorders involve changes in behavior, it is particularly important for mental health scientists to understand culture.


You also chaired the Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Board in the Drug and Food Administration. What have you discovered about the correlation of substances with psychopathology?

Probably the most important lesson I learned, as I talked about in my talk, is that the issues of economics and issues of public health sometimes conflict with each other. So it’s important to … step back and think about those things ahead of time. One of the things I learned is how complicated those issues are and we need to think very, very carefully about them. … I think early on, in the 1990s, we were not as careful about thinking about some of these conflicts between economic issues and issues of public health.


In the lecture, you talked about the shift in the definitions of mental illness, especially regarding homosexuality. Can you think of any new shift, along with the current social dynamics?

The most important recent one is … whether or not to diagnose depression in somebody who just had a close partner die. Before, you would not diagnose a depression if somebody was undergoing grieving, but now you do. That’s the recent change that has … been most controversial, but also related to this struggle about how to consider people’s lives when we are making diagnoses. People are still not comfortable with that.


Do you have any message for students who are interested in the field of psychology and psychiatry?

It’s a wonderful field. It’s the kind of field that takes many, many years to understand and appreciate. So, my main advice to students would be to enjoy every minute of preparing for the field and not to feel like they need to be in a big hurry. You do not need to go straight to a graduate school after you graduate from Grinnell. You can spend time working in the field, figuring out what aspects of the field really interest you or really doing other activities. [You should] not feel like you’re in such a rush immediately after graduate school or medical school.

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