FSU Trailblazer: Jacob Goldstein-Greenwood

By Zack Boehm on September 20, 2016
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I met Jacob Goldstein-Greenwood recently on assignment in my capacity as an intern at Florida State’s University Communications Office. I was tasked with interviewing Jacob for a feature in FSU.edu’s “Student Star” series, a collection of brief profiles designed to recognize and celebrate the academic, research, and service achievements of the University’s most exemplary students.

The fifteen short minutes I spent with Jacob for that interview turned out to be an illuminating lesson in how clarity of vision, intellectual modesty, and uncynical passion can converge and result in a young person who is bound to effect real, material change throughout the course of his life. Only a sophomore, Jacob’s literacy in complex ideas about psychology and moral philosophy belies his age, and his knack for communicating technical academic information simply and compellingly demonstrates his commitment bringing the things he’s learned out of the hermetic halls of academia and into the world at large. During our discussion, Jacob pivoted between topics like normative ethics and Psychology’s recent replicability crisis with the polished aplomb of someone who might receive a perfect Rate My Professor score. However, above all, it was Jacobs’s unfailing geniality that made him such a captivating subject. It was easy to be dizzied by his brilliance once I was disarmed by his kindness.

When I was asked to compose a piece for the FSU Trailblazer series, I could think of no more deserving a candidate than Jacob. The following interview is a condensed version of our first meeting and supplementary correspondences. It has been edited for clarity.

Jacob as a high-school student.
via thebestandbrightestawards.wordpress.com

Q: What is your hometown?

J.G-G: Tallahasse, Florida.

Q: What’s your major?

J.G-G: Psychology.

Q: What year of school are you in?

J.G-G: Sophomore year.

Q: Why did you pick psychology?

J.G-G: In many ways, I had always flirted with the ideas that were central to psychology. How do we act? Why do we act the ways that we act? What pressures consolidate to make us act in certain ways? And how can we learn from the ways that we do act to better our actions? Ought implies can, so if we’re going to figure out how we should be acting then we need to have a good grasp on how we do.

Q: Why is research and lab work so important to you?

J.G-G: For me, a lot of it is the specific kind of research and lab work that I do. I’ve always been interested in normative ethics—how we should act—and for me, my intro to that was to study moral psychology and how we do act. If we’re going to figure out how we ought to act then maybe having a better understanding of how we presently do act can help with that.

I was interested in research. I had interest in a lot of different fields, often in social and life sciences, so I looked at economics and evolutionary biology, but I got very lucky. As I was getting interested in moral psychology and realizing that there was this whole field of actual research being conducted, FSU hired my current advisor Dr. Paul Conway, and he moved to Florida about a week before I moved on to campus. I shot him an email, I said “I know nothing, but I’d like to learn, I’ll try not to break whatever toys you have in the lab,” and he let me come in and start working.

Q: How has your relationship with Dr. Conway added value to your experiences at FSU?

J.G-G: My relationship with Dr. Conway has been by far the most important piece of my FSU experience. He’s been tremendously helpful. He’s got this great approach to science where he’s got a playful and creative approach to theory and discussion, but when it actually comes down to doing the science, to doing the analyses and running the models that we need to run, he tries to be as rigorous as he can be. The first couple of times that I met with him and got to talk to him, I knew that if I was going to learn from a guy who can teach me the ropes of rigor and thinking creatively, this was the guy to work with.

Q: What is your favorite thing about FSU?

J.G-G: A big part of me coming to FSU was actually the Presidential Scholars Program. They work hard to put together this unified cohort of about 25 students a year, and the opportunities to work with really great people who I can learn a lot from is really exciting, and of course the staff are all great as well. It seemed like a great funneling system which could put me into contact with a lot of really great people doing some cool work that I may be able to learn from or work with.

Q: Talk about your research on moral judgments. Why is it so important to you to interrogate the notion of morality and moral decision making?

J.G-G: Because we are hilariously inconsistent. It’s a mess. And I don’t expect that the end result of moral psychology and moral philosophy will be like: “alright, we’ve done it, everyone is on one system and we all agree on everything.” But I do think adding a little bit of reflectivity and conscious reflection to our everyday judgments helps. Ultimately our goal is to generate as much goodwill in the world as we can, and there are a few options to do that. We can either sit back and pretend that we don’t have to deal with this and just let things continue on as they are, or we can attack the problems through moral philosophy and moral psychology, try to figure out the descriptive and normative features of our moral judgments, and go from there.

Q: Discuss your ideas about the importance of using what you learn in the classroom and lab as a means of improving the lives of others.

J.G-G: I believe that it works. This whole idea is something that I got attached to when I was first learning about the research on helping. Under what circumstances do we help people in need? Should we yell help or fire? That kind of situation—what helps and what makes us not help? The end result of a lot of that research said: “look, it’s hard to exactly apply this, and you may forget if you’re in an emergency situation, but just informing people of the research writ large does actually increase helping behavior.” And I maintain a bit of that belief for the moral stuff. Just introducing these ideas to public, making them a public conversation that we have to have, I think will help us be a bit more reflective and a bit more conscious of the moral choices that we make.

via fsu.edu

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

J.G-G: I’ve found tennis, rock climbing, and playing music to all be immensely fulfilling ways of spending my free time. Those are all activities in which gratification is relatively immediate—hitting a satisfying rally, climbing a new route, playing through a great song—so they provide a refreshing reprieve from the drawn-out nature of academic work and lab projects.

Q: How would you describe yourself?

J.G-G: I try not to focus too much on piecing together all of the aspects of my personhood right now. I’ll leave that for years to come, once graduate school and the pursuit of a career have helped me flesh out my interests and values in a more complete sense.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment during your time at FSU?

J.G-G: The research that I’ve done since I began at FSU has been by far my most satisfying work. Thanks in large part to the help and guidance of a number of mentors and friends, I received an IDEA Grant for the summer of 2016 to continue my research on moral psychology. This award was a much-appreciated affirmation of the value of my work, but more importantly, it gave me an opportunity to continue digging into the field that I hope to contribute to throughout graduate school and my future career.

Q: If you could go back and change something during your time at FSU, would you? What would you change?

J.G-G: I would have focused more on maintaining fulfilling hobbies. During the periods in which all that I’m doing is thinking about my academic work, the threat of burnout and discontent grows substantially. Thankfully, though, I’ve become better at this over time, hence the tennis, rock climbing, and music.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

J.G-G: The rough sketch is to go to grad school and then fight my way in to a tenure track job. That’s tough obviously, but I feel good about it, I’m excited by it. It hasn’t totally beaten me down yet. I think there are still a lot of fun opportunities out there for young academics. I’ve been tremendously lucky—all of my success is due to my relationships with other people and their influence on me. I’ve got to work with some great people, I hope that that continues in the future. But at the same time, if you only read one type of book for your entire life you’ll go a little crazy, so you want to keep diverse interests, not just do one thing for your whole life, and try to be a little interdisciplinary. So we’ll see where that takes me.

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Zack Boehm is an English Literature student from Florida State University. He is a gluttonous consumer of culture.

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