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

December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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