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Michael “Mikey” Pasek, PhD

This month, we are spotlighting Assistant Professor, Mikey Pasek, PhD. Mikey is one of our newest faculty members in the department and we are so excited to welcome him to the university and department.

Mikey Pasek, PhD

[TT] How did your career/psychology journey begin?

[MP] My origin story as a psychologist probably dates back to being a middle school student who came of age around 9/11. I think a lot about what it was like witnessing society turn again Muslim-Americans. Being a religious minority (I’m Jewish), I was struck by how fast prejudice can mount towards members of a religious group. This led me to wonder what psychological factors motivated bias, and what we could do to counteract them. This curiosity led me to work with Interfaith Philadelphia, where I learned a lot about intergroup dynamics and prejudice. Most of the questions I study today can be traced right back to my experiences as a high school student trying to understand how we could bridge social divides.

[TT] Who or what inspired you during your journey?

[MP] My undergraduate advisor at Bates College, Michael Sargent, is one of the best teachers I have ever had. Michael gave me the bandwidth when working on a senior thesis in college to really dive into questions that motivated me, with a ton of support. He pushed me really hard, in a way that I definitely lamented then and totally appreciate now. With Michael, I conducted a senior thesis looking at how American Jews’ Jewish identity shapes our understanding and appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That was one of the first times I ever got to explore religion, prejudice, and conflict in a formal manner. I feel incredibly fortunate to have benefited from Michael’s mentorship in college, and am even more fortunate that he has shifted from being a mentor to a colleague and friend.

[TT] Did you attend grad school directly after undergrad? What was that experience like?

[MP] I took one year off. I worked in DC for a group called The Religious Action Center, which is constituent advocacy arm of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest (liberal) Jewish denomination in the United States. There I represented 1.5 million American Jews on a whole range of political topics including hate crimes, the death penalty, antisemitism, and gun violence policy prevention, to name a few. I was trying to tease a part at that point if I wanted to pursue more of an applied career or a research-based career. There was a lot I found professionally enlightening. And a lot that was quite difficult. I was working on gun violence prevention when the Sandy Hooks massacre happened. As a function of the role that my organization played in organizing the religious left, I unexpectedly ended up at the center of a lot of national political conversations on how to advance gun violence preventative measures. I learned a lot in that role. Most importantly, sometimes when you are a far removed from politics, it’s easy to think there’s someone advocating for your values, and you don’t have to do the work. In that role, I realized that I was one of the people others expected would be advocating on their behalf. I knew what we were able to accomplish, and more soberly, what we weren’t. There was a level of despair that set in. That experience taught me a lot about how effective advocacy needs strong social science and data. I hope that over time, my research can help fill that gap and aid those on the ground who are tirelessly working to advance positive social change.

[TT] When you finally did pursue graduate school, what was the experience like?

[MP] Grad school was a surprisingly great experience. I was really fortunate to work with a great advisor, Jonathan Cook, as his first grad student. We built a lab together. I benefited from his tremendous mentorship and training, and from his willingness to support me in asking questions beyond his immediate expertise. His research focuses in large part on belonging and the experiences that can negatively impact members of marginalized groups, predominantly studying race and sexual orientation. Knowing that I was interested in religion, he gave me the leeway to extend that area of research to study perceptions of religious identity. I was particularly grateful because traditionally social psychology has tended to ignore religion, at least compared to many other types of identities like race, gender, and sexual orientation. I was incredibly lucky to work with Jonathan, to benefit from his training, and to be given the freedom to take a path less traveled in my work. Beyond work, grad school was great because I was surrounded by an amazing group of friends.

[TT] Let’s touch base on the postdoc work you completed after finishing up at Penn State. Can you speak to that experience and how it further shaped your research?

[MP] I completed my postdoc with Jeremy Ginges at The New School for Social Research in New York.  Jeremy is one of the leading experts studying conflict and cooperation, with a focus on religion. Working with Jeremy was the first time I ever got to study with someone who had direct expertise on religion, which was always my main interest. Our work was originally funded by the John Templeton Foundation. I came in at the start of the grant trying to better understand how religious belief and in particular belief in God influences inter-group attitudes. On one hand, religious belief is often blamed as a source of conflict, but we also often hear that religion is this great motivator of prosocial behavior. We wanted to unravel that paradox, and we are still trying to! Among the many things I learned from Jeremy, I gained an appreciation for cross-cultural psychology. In particular, I have been working for the past 4 years in Fiji. People don’t really know a lot about Fiji’s history. It’s a post-colonial country colonized by the British. The indigenous iTaukei population was converted to Christianity by British missionaries. Then the British brought over indentured servants from India. As you can imagine, when the British left, Fiji entered a period of deep ethnoreligious conflict. Yet, people still need to cooperate across religious divides all of the time. This sets the stage for our research. Getting to do this work helped me to learn not only how to test theories developed in the West elsewhere, but to actually develop theories in other contexts based off of the knowledge of indigenous cultures. That is a perspective that informs a lot of my thinking today. All in all, my time as a postdoc was really amazing, and I can definitely say I wouldn’t be where I am today without gaining the skills and experiences I did from that role.

[TT] What is the most meaningful thing you’ve done in your career?

[MP] I’d say the most meaningful experience comes from working in Fiji. To be honest, that work can be the most tiring and difficult, but there’s something really unique about conducting research with people in that hands on, face-to-face manner. I think that’s something that, as a field, Social Psychology is missing.  Given our heavy reliance on internet surveys, we rarely acknowledge or interact with our study participants. Getting to witness how people process the questions we ask helps me to gain a much deeper understanding of the phenomena we study. In particular, I remember a few of the responses we had from people for whom our study represented their first-time answering survey questions. Some of them cried during or at the end of the interview, not because they were uncomfortable, but because they felt it was the first-time anyone from outside their community asked them what they think. That reminds me of the responsibility we have as researchers. It’s not just testing our hypothesis, but also trying to use the tools in our toolkit to give voice to those who may not feel like their perspectives are heard. Doing so allows us to understand human psychology as a whole through the voices of the people who take the time to participate in our research. That frame of reference is powerful for me as I think about what It means to conduct my work.

[TT] Now for the big question, Why UIC?

[MP] I was immediately drawn to UIC because of its unique purpose-driven identity. Being in a mission-driven institution that places social mobility and diversity at its core means a lot to me. It’s what education should be. I knew that I wanted to work at a university that not only valued research focusing on diversity, but that also had a diverse student body whose diverse perspectives could enhance my research. I was also really drawn by the synergy in the Department and the chance to work with amazing colleagues who are asking questions that closely relate to my work. I’m excited to be a part of such a collaborative environment in which we can all learn together!

[TT] Our final question for you,  what is a fun fact or hobby you would like to share with readers?

[MP] I really love bowling. One of the major attractors for me at UIC was that there is an on-campus bowling alley. I do own a bowling ball and would like to start a tradition that whenever we experience a setback in our work, we can go blow off steam and convert it into something more fun.

Dr. Pasek, thank you for sitting down for this interview and sharing your journey to and through Psychology! We are glad to have you in the department with us!