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Psychology professor Elaine Walker’s ‘life-changing’ impact honored with the Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring
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Elaine Walker, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, is this year’s recipient of the Cuttino Award, recognizing a legacy of support and academic excellence that reverberates across the fields of psychology and mental illness research.

— Sarah Woods, Emory Photo/Video

“Academic fairy godmother” is how Allison LoPilato describes her undergraduate and graduate mentor Elaine F. Walker, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience.

LoPilato, who now serves as an Emory assistant professor of psychiatry and co-director of the child and adolescent mood program, credits Walker as the most influential person in her career.

“I’m confident I wouldn’t be in my current position if I hadn’t stumbled into her lab as a 19-year-old college student wanting to redefine my future,” LoPilato said. “She trusted me with advanced opportunities as an undergrad that got me into research and kept me on as a graduate student where she continued to elevate me. She has been a constant for the past 14 years and my trusted confidant as I’ve navigated career transitions, grant applications and negotiations.”

It’s one example of the life-changing impact Walker has made for her countless undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students — culminating in her receiving the 2023 George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring. Established in 1997 by John T. Glover 68C in honor of late Emory history professor George Peddy Cuttino, the award celebrates exemplary mentorship.

“I was grateful to the university for acknowledging my contribution to promoting research in my field and the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students who are pursuing and further expanding our understanding of serious mental illness,” Walker says. “It’s inherently enjoyable for me to work together with people to pursue a goal of solving a problem.”

Walker’s many awards include the American Psychological Foundation Gralnick Award for Research on Schizophrenia and the Joseph Zubin Lifetime Research Award from the Society for Research in Psychopathology.

Her research is featured in more than 400 publications. In much of that published work, Walker gave students first authorship, fostering her students’ academic careers, something her mentees now do for their students. 

An ‘open door and open heart’ policy

Walker is known for her creative approach to research of etiological factors in serious mental illness, including the role of neurodevelopment and stress in altering risk and trajectories of illness.

For example, Walker used childhood home movies of adults with schizophrenia to find the first concrete evidence that vulnerabilities to severe mental illness appeared decades before onset, says Vijay A. Mittal, David S. Holmes Professor of Brain Science for Northwestern University.

“Elaine’s students have always been in awe of how she can tell where the field is going to be years earlier,” says Mittal, a former graduate student in her clinical lab at Emory. "Elaine is the model of an early innovator, clinical scientist and dedicated mentor. Many of the things that we now take as commonplace — multidisciplinary research, developmental psychopathology, the psychosis prodrome, hormonal models of psychosis, the role of motor dysfunction in psychiatric illness — were ideas she helped pioneer.” 

There’s a photo of Walker as a child playing teacher with her two brothers as students sitting on the stairs like in a classroom, recalls Patricia Brennan, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, who co-nominated Walker for the Cuttino award. 

“Even then she was ready to be a teacher and mentor. It’s in her blood,” says Brennan.

She says Walker has an “open door and open heart” that support student development both personally and professionally. Students are eager to go to a mentor when something good happens like a publication but can be less open to sharing their struggles, Brennan says.

“What sets Elaine apart is that if people are struggling, she is the first person they will contact because she doesn’t get shocked, flustered or judgmental. She can just sit in that moment, talk with the student about the big picture and how they will get past it. Elaine is the one who can help them recover, come back from a crisis and then succeed,” Brennan says.

Maybe part of that mindset came from Walker’s work in a psychiatric inpatient unit for adolescents before her years in graduate school.

“I spent a lot of time with adolescents on a locked ward with serious disturbances. As a result, I became less flustered by crises because they occurred so commonly. I’ve learned the skills of not overreacting, being careful and nurturing to resolve problems. I have an optimistic approach that most problems can be solved,” Walker says. 

Building a team and granting success

When St. John’s University associate professor of psychology Andrea Bergman, a former Walker Cornell undergraduate and Emory graduate student, began her career, she didn’t find much success in applying for grants.

“She was so supportive of me. She said, ‘It really doesn’t matter if you get grants unless you need money to do the work. If you can find another way to do the work it doesn’t matter.’ And she is so successful at getting grants that it made me look at it differently. It’s not an ego thing or a rejection thing — just find a way to do the work. That helped me tremendously,” Bergman says.

Students say Walker made sure they always had fun, whether they gathered for clinical lab get-togethers or graduation celebrations. It’s something Walker learned from her own mentor, the late Sarnoff Mednick, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Southern California.

“He encouraged us to work as a team and to go out for fun. It engendered an atmosphere of camaraderie and shared purpose,” Walker says.

For nearly 30 years, Walker has mentored and collaborated with Jason Schiffman, professor of psychological science and director of clinical training at the University of California Irvine. Just last month, Walker provided some feedback on a grant application.

“I owe Elaine Walker almost everything I have professionally. Any success that a person could associate with me is because of values she instilled and professional skills she imparted. Most importantly, she was the first person who really believed in me and my potential to make a difference,” Schiffman says. 

Collaboration, instead of competition, is a key lesson he learned.

“She showed you can be creative and collaborate with others and that excellence and kindness are not mutually exclusive. You can be both a great scholar and clinician and produce meaningful work of the highest quality and be kind and caring toward others,” Schiffman says.

In fact, students say Walker treats them more like extended family, creating a lifelong connection — checking in on them and spending time together years later.

“After all of these years I still do not know Elaine’s secret, but I do know that by trying to emulate her, I have become a better person,” Mittal says. “Elaine has continued to leave an indelible mark on the field through her research contributions as well as through the careers of her many students, who are now training a new generation of clinical scientists. I cannot think of a better candidate for this prestigious award.”

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