Professor Jessica Black pursued higher education in hopes of preparing a next generation of collegians to go out and make a difference in the world. This is a major reason she redirected her own course of study toward social work, to prepare students to build careers in practice, policy, and research that have the potential to enhance biopsychosocial life course development.
It’s no accident that along the way, Black has pioneered a new area of inquiry unto itself: neuroscience and social work. An educational psychologist with postdoctoral training in neuroscience from the Stanford University School of Medicine, she is one of the first professors nationwide to concentrate her career in this space. Black firmly believes that neuroscience is a critical component of any social work training.
In this conversation with BC Social Work, she discusses the neuroscience certificate program at BCSSW, an upcoming first-of-its-kind neuroscience and social work symposium to be held on campus, and her own research that is defining this innovative space.
Thanks Jessica for your time today. Let’s begin by discussing why you believe neuroscience can have such an illuminating role in the training of a next generation of social workers.
I believe that, while we’re not training social workers to be neuroscientists, understanding the brain can inform cutting-edge research and the new and innovative interventions that come out of creative inquiry.
During my own PhD in educational psychology, I had to pursue my personal interest in neuroscience in a different building from the rest of my coursework and research. I certainly would have preferred to wear an integrative hat, so-to-speak, especially when it pertained to my main focus, better understanding the biopsychosocial welfare of a child.
By encouraging an integrative learning environment here at BC, we have a real opportunity to help our students benefit from the natural synergies that exist between these two fields. This kind of shared study can only be beneficial for all of us.
You’ve started a certificate in neuroscience program here at BCSSW. What does that entail?
The Neuroscience in Social Work Certificate requires our MSW students to complete three courses: one foundation course – Human Behavior in the Social Environment (HBSE) – and two elective courses, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships and Development and The Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience in the Life Course.
The foundation course explores biopsychosocial development through the life course. I developed four online neuropsychology modules that all of our first year MSW students complete as part of HBSE. The two elective courses build on content introduced in HBSE, yet delve deeper into the biological aspects of development – we get more specific about what’s taking place in the brain during specific times in life such as fetal brain development, the wave of changes taking place in adolescence, and how aging affects the biological processes of the brain. We consider contexts relevant to social work research and practice such as stress, early life adversity, social connections, and environment (including family and community).
The courses are designed specifically for social workers. In addition to teaching students how important it can be to understand neuroscience in their future careers, we also work to build intersections and bridges, and develop a lexicon for sharing research findings.
The biopsychosocial model is of course one of the key approaches used by social workers to understand the wide range of human functioning. By encouraging our students to study the brain, I believe we have an opportunity to advance their understanding of the biological piece of this model, which could go a long way toward building new, and better, interventions.
You’re also building bridges to construct, almost from scratch, a new field of inquiry, by encouraging like-minded academics and researchers to come together and share ideas.
That’s right. This coming fall, the Boston College School of Social Work will host our inaugural Intersections Symposium, a first-of-its-kind academic meeting bringing together scholars from the fields of neuroscience and social work to initiate conversations across fields, and inspire ideas for collaboration.
I really believe that collaboration in this space provides a two-way street for opportunity. Certainly, from a practical perspective, when social workers are able to understand the neurobiology of a biological response such as stress and subsequent resilience, they broaden their understanding of the challenges that their clients face, sometimes day in and day out.
But it’s not only social workers who could learn from neuroscientists. Social workers provide a unique lens that can offer key supports to the study of the brain – their attention to diversity, respect for all persons, and ability to recognize key community resources, to name a few. Social workers are also uniquely attuned to understanding that we each have a unique life course, and similar events may impart different meaning and effects depending on the individual experiencing them. This is a critical perspective to be able to bring to research conducted in the biological sciences.
Your own research is certainly helping to define this budding space. Tell us about some of the projects you are currently working on.
Much of my research integrates the use of neuroimaging (functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging), with standard neuropsychological behavioral testing and environmental measures, such as the home supports, to predict outcome in children who are at increased risk academically. Within this population, my focus is primarily on children with learning disabilities.
I am also very interested in strengths-based research (an approach of focusing on what seems to be working well in an individual or in a community). Together with colleagues in the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at the Stanford University School of Medicine, we are using neuroimaging to better understand the neural underpinnings of humor in children, and the extent to which humor and positive emotion might contribute to their resilience.
In a recent study of humor processing in children aged 6-12 we found increased activation of one reward-related region in the younger participants. This finding indicated that the younger children found the Funny stimuli (brief humorous clips such as from America’s Funniest Home Videos) more intrinsically rewarding than older children. Another interpretation of these data is that the younger children were possibly less expectant of the rewarding component of humor.
The hope is that better understandings of this kind of brain data will help researchers to develop better methodologies for both detecting, and treating, certain psychological behaviors and conditions.
To learn more about why Black believes neuroscience is an essential component to the core of any social work training, watch this video on BCSSW’s YouTube page.