Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30

bobst

Inside New York University's Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. (Photo: Marilyn Cole/Wikimedia Commons)

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Sir Henry Wellcome Fellow Who Wants to Better Understand Psychiatric Disorders

• April 27, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Inside New York University's Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. (Photo: Marilyn Cole/Wikimedia Commons)

For the month of April we’re profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.

Claire Gillan, 26, Psychology

When you repeat something so often that it becomes automatic, it’s a learned habit.

“This is a really important skill that our brains allow us to have,” Claire Gillan says. “It means we can multitask, thinking about what we’ll have for dinner while we are driving home. It means we don’t need to spend an hour tying our shoelaces every morning.”

(Photo: Claire Gillan)

(Photo: Claire Gillan)

But sometimes habits run amok. Sometimes the neural wiring that’s supposed to help us go about our mundane chores gets tweaked. “In some psychiatric disorders,” Gillan says, “over-active habit learning can make people unable to stop doing things that no longer make any sense, like in obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Gillan, fresh off her Cambridge Ph.D. in experimental psychology, is now at New York University on a prestigious Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellowship, to study how and why that overactive wiring sometimes takes over. She uses behavioral experiments, neuroimaging, and other methods to understand what’s going on when normal habits morph into disruptive compulsions.

Originally from Sligo, a county on Ireland’s west coast, Gillan started out wanting to be a clinical psychologist. “I’m not sure why, but I had a lot of conviction about it,” she says. “The brain always fascinated me. I thought it was a really exciting thing to try and understand, and I thought if I could use that knowledge to help people, that would make for a really satisfying job.”

A decade later, with her psychology bachelor’s degree in hand (from University College Dublin), she realized how little we know about the brain. Academia beckoned: “I could chase ideas, find new answers, and potentially make a contribution that would have some permanence.” Writing her thesis cemented her love of research.

Her work was featured on two BBC documentaries about obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she gave talks about OCD everywhere from Yale to Harvard to specialized conferences to support groups. She also co-founded Cambridge’s Pint of Science festival, which mixes top academics, the general public, and pub-served beer. It’s an event she’s planning to bring to New York City in the near future.

In the meantime, Gillan is busy producing original research that sheds light on how to better understand psychiatric disorders. “I would like to have helped overhaul the practice of psychiatry,” she says. “The system is broken. There is a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment and it just doesn’t work. My goal is to use evidence-based research to guide a new treatment approach that moves away from the flawed classification system. Not everyone fits into one of those boxes ascribed by the DSM—in fact, most people don’t.” Instead, Gillan wants to usher us into an era of treatments that are tailored to each individual.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know about the universe,” Gillan says, “but for some reason I think that the brain is the most exciting puzzle of them all. We will never solve it, of course, never figure out fully what is going on up there. But we can make inroads, and that really drives me.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.

Avital Andrews
Avital Andrews writes about thought leaders, environmental issues, food, and travel. She also reports for Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @avitalb.

More From Avital Andrews

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.