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Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge

If there’s a way to top winning a prestigious, national psychology award, Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge found it when they donated their $100,000 prize from the 2019 Grawemeyer Psychology Award to graduate students in the Biopsychology PhD program at the University of Michigan.

Their gift will establish the Biopsychology Graduate Student Support Fund and will be used to help the Department of Psychology support research and professional development of students in the Biopsychology PhD Program. Two main components of the gift are a $1,000 prize attached to Wyvell Award recipients for exemplary biopsychology dissertations and a yearly $250 supplement for each PhD student in Biopsychology to support professional-related expenses.

“In a sense, we won the award, but it’s based on our work which largely comes out of our labs and a lot of that work has been done by graduate students over the years. We can’t reward those historic graduate students, but we can tip our hat and recognize and support current and future graduate students in their research,” says Berridge.

The two professors hope the gift recognizes and helps graduate students in a tangible way. “The Cindy Wyvell Award has long been for the best PhD dissertation in the area, but it’s only been a pat on the head. Now the winner will get $1,000 to go along with the award; giving them an actual reward too. We understand all of the graduate students have professional expenses. With the $250 they can buy books, pay for membership dues, attend conferences or buy an iPad for their work with maximum flexibility,” explains Robinson.

Both faculty members know flexible funding is hard to come by and they believe their gift will make a difference for graduate students with limited resources. The gift will sustain these initiatives for about fifteen years for Biopsychology students, and if others donate to the fund, it will increase the size of the endowment and may last longer. They also hope that some of those who leave money to the department set up similar awards for other areas in Psychology.

The Grawemeyer Award in Psychology is given for an original and creative idea that substantially impacts the field of psychology, administered by the University of Louisville from a bequest by the philanthropist Charles Grawemeyer. The faculty members won the award for explaining how our brains process “liking” versus “wanting" and how neural sensitization of the “wanting” system plays a key role in addiction.

“Winning the award is a great honor and it’s unique because it’s for an idea. It’s particularly gratifying because it’s for an idea that we shared. The idea came out of a line of work that I was doing years ago and a line of work that Kent was doing independently and it was the putting together of them that led to the incentive-sensitization theory,” says Robinson.

In 1993, when Berridge and Robinson first published their theory, it was contrary to what was popular at the time; both for explaining addiction and for explaining the brain’s reward systems and what they did. There was also a long phase where people ignored their findings and staying the course was a matter of being willing to be in the minority.

Robinson recalls, “In the early days, you’d stand up to give a talk and I can remember after the talk a line of people at the microphone, not really asking questions, but challenging and attacking the theory. I always found that great fun. I tell students if no one is challenging you or arguing with you, you’re probably not doing something that really interests others. It was a fun time because of the pushback and intellectual argument.”

Berridge encourages future researchers to follow the data even if it’s unpopular. “I think it’s important to follow the new evidence as it comes out. Preconceived ideas of how things work can be dangerous. Often we get surprised by the evidence, so being open to surprises and evidence is the best thing and can lead you to better places. If the data leads you places where other people don’t think you should go, always follow the data,” he advises.