By Briana Wheeler
Surrounded by mementos of a life in progress, nestled between an L-shaped desk and a comfy couch, Dr. Brandy Tiernan seemed right at home in her corner of the world. Assistant Professor of Psychology at Sewanee since 2015, Tiernan admitted that while settling down on a plateau with a family was not part of the original “move to a big city alone and crank out research” plan, it has been a worthwhile journey with few regrets.
“Well, there’s lots of dips and turns and dives that happen,” she said. “You know, things happen, and your trajectory changes for a lot of different reasons and that’s okay. It just depends on how you define success.”
Despite some uncertainty about the end-goal, Tiernan chose the general trajectory of her career very early. “I always knew I wanted to be a psychologist. My sisters are 13 and 11 years older than me, and when my oldest sister came home from college I was really excited about what she was learning. She would do all of these little tests on me, see what I was developing theory of mind, basically all the stuff I do to my kids. I always wanted to learn what was going on in people’s heads and what makes them do what they do.”
She continued, “I think that the brain came later. It really wasn’t necessary, for a while, to think about how the mind and brain are connected, or whether they’re connected. We just know that there’s a behavioral output, and that’s what we really want to know. But the behavioral output isn’t the entire story because we’re human beings and we process information on a continuous basis. To leave out that information is to lose a lot of data. Once I got into neuroscience, I realized that we were getting another part of the story that we weren’t getting with purely behavioral data.”
While attending her master’s and doctorate program, Tiernan realized that she wanted to travel the educational route rather than one purely based on research. “I have always loved working with people in the teenage age group. So as I got older, hanging around college students and learning about their experiences was really fun for me. So I just really wanted to be a college professor.”
As for her current position, the opportunity came quite by accident.
“So I had not heard of Sewanee, like a lot of the faculty here. But when you’re on the job market, you apply for everything that you can see. I’m really interested in borderline psychology department, and there was a position open in the psychology department for a personality psychologist,” Tiernan said. “And I am not a personality psychologist by any stretch of the imagination, but I was like, ‘I’m gonna give it a go!’ The word personality is in my research statement. I didn’t think I’d ever hear back.”
Surprisingly for Tiernan, she did hear back. “Apparently, they were looking for someone who does what I do, which is cognitive neuroscience, specifically using a brain encephalogram to measure responses to different types of stimuli,” she said.
When it came time for the interview, she resolved to use the experience as a practice for her other interviews because she had small expectations. However, according to her, “Once I got here and saw how beautiful it was, I realized that I definitely needed to get back to my room and practice my talk!”
Since that moment, like many before her, Tiernan moved to Sewanee and has rooted herself in the community. She is not only an assistant professor, but also the chair of the neuroscience program. When she was hired, the program was placed into her capable hands.
“One of the things that Dean [Terry] Papillon said was that I would have the opportunity to take this program in a direction that is pragmatic and relevant. I have been working closely with Dr. [Katharine] Cammack, and in the fall we’ll have a neurobiologist so we’ve got like this triad, and one day we’ll have a neurochemist. And next year we’ll be a major!” she excitedly revealed.
She also conducts several research projects on campus. “Right now I’m really interested in stigma around borderline personality disorder. So I’ve got a number of experiments designed to get at the stigma behind it,” she explained.
As for her relationships with her students, Tiernan summed up her primary goals as a professor. “I just want people to be engaged, know that I care, and want them to come to class. I don’t want them to think, ‘ugh, it’s Tiernan’s again.’ But being a professor is really rewarding, and I’m glad that I do it.”
She went on to describe her commitment to and support of the liberal arts model Sewanee holds near and dear. “I think it’s important. We have an obligation to survey different aspects of our world, society, and culture. It’s very important to know about statistics, or take a humanities class and learn to think in that way,” she said.
Tiernan continued, “I love it, and hope that nothing pushes that tradition out. You find more and more that people want to stay in their little corner of the world, but we have to remind ourselves about our humanity sometimes and also have to remind ourselves how to be systematic.”
In response to a final question of whether there was anything she would like her students, current or future, to know, Tiernan grew thoughtful before answering. Eventually, she said, “I don’t have any burning thoughts or desires I suppose. I like neuroscience. I love La Croix. Black power, I’m all about that,” and finished the point with a smile and an inspired fist pump.