P&N Person of the Week: Ahmad Hariri

Monday, February 19, 2018
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

Dr. Ahmad Hariri has advice for students: do not follow the script. Pursue your passions, and see where that takes you. Dr. Hariri's career shows that following the script, or checking off all of the right boxes is not the only path to success. Hariri's love of biology started in childhood; he was always fascinated by nature. This fascination, along with familial and cultural expectations, influenced his interest in pursuing a career in science. Initially, Dr. Hariri was convinced that he would pursue medicine; as a first-generation immigrant, this career path was encouraged and celebrated. However, at the end of his undergraduate career at the University of Maryland, Hariri decided to apply for a master's in evolutionary biology. He began his graduate career in a lab at his alma mater that studied stalk-eyed flies. While he was thankful for this opportunity, he realized that wet labs such as this were not for him. Around the same time, he read articles on research using imaging technologies to study human language. This piqued his interest; he could not think of anything he would love to study more than humans. After earning his masters, Hariri applied to multiple doctoral programs in neuroscience. He chose to attend the University of California at Los Angeles, one of the leading centers of imaging studies at the time. While there, he developed a paradigm for facial emotional expressions and perceptions based upon these. This paradigm is now widely used in many imaging studies. After earning his doctorate degree, Dr. Hariri then worked with Daniel Weinberger at the NIH; there, Hariri used his paradigm to understand how the brain connected differences in genetics to behavior and mental illness. Dr. Hariri then moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where he worked in clinical and translational psychiatry. So, the lesson from Dr. Hariri's experiences? Use every available resource to pursue what you love and follow the advice of your mentors. You may end up somewhere unexpected, but that's often better than what you had planned.

How many years of service do you have with Duke?

I came here in 2009, so I have been here for nine years.

What do you do in this department?

I am a neuroscientist by training. I am also a professor in this department. One of the reasons that I came to Duke was to become more involved and engaged with teaching. I am lucky to be able to teach what I find most interesting. In 2011, I began offering a fall course called 'Looking Inside the Disordered Brain,' which coincides with our research where we study aspects of individuals' brains to help predict who may be more or less susceptible to developing mental illness later in life. I also developed a textbook for this course. In the spring, I traditionally taught a seminar, 'Biological Pathways to Psychopathology,' that began from where we ended in my fall course; this seminar allows students to drill deeper from brain circuits to the chemistry that regulates those circuits, all the way down to the genes that shape the chemistry that shapes the circuits that shape behavior. I always try to incorporate popular culture, particularly movies, into my classes. By referencing movies and characters that depict mental illness, I can help students put a “face” to what we study. However, over the years, fewer and fewer students understood my references (because let's be honest, I'm not getting any younger.) So, I created a new seminar this spring, The Cinema of Psychopathology, that uses the information learned from Looking Inside the Disordered Brain to critically analyze movies that depict mental illness. We work as a group to question how accurate specific cinematic portrayals are of mental illness and the extent to which the portrayal helps us better appreciate the biology we study.

What is your research?

My research has changed over the years, but one thing has stayed the same: our goal of improving the mental wellbeing of as many people as possible. For my first seven years here, I created a database of information gathered from over 1,300 undergraduates; the information included scans of the individuals' brains, their moods, their experiences, their personalities, and more. For the past couple of years, we have analyzed this data and are starting to recognize some patterns. We use these patterns to help predict risk for mental illness later in life. Our research has multiple facets. Most importantly, I want my students to pursue their own research interests, as long as it relates back to biology and mental health. I've found that I learn more from them than they probably do from me; they bring new ideas, frameworks, and measures to the table.

What do you like about P&N?

I love that I am able to work with clinical psychologists that share my interest in improving mental health. I love that the findings from our research can inform clinical work right here on campus. I'm thankful to have colleagues who I can also call friends. This department has some of the most well-known leaders in their field, but no one walks around with a big ego. This department, along with others on campus, encourages collaboration, not competition. Here at Duke, there is room for everyone to do their own research without limiting anyone else's.

Do you have any hidden talents?

I don't think so. I did play the trombone in junior high, but only because it was mandatory. As soon as it became an option, I dropped it. But, I do wish I had continued. As I grew older, I began to listen to ska music where trombones are often featured as part of a large brass section. If only I had continued learning and playing, then I could have been in a ska band! I’ll have to find some way of working that into my classes.

How do you spend your time outside of Duke?

Most of my evenings and weekends are spent with my family. My wife and I love spending time with our two children. We also make every opportunity to enjoy the Durham food scene and try new restaurants. I also love watching movies, which has made my new seminar all the more enjoyable.