Psychology professor Shivon Robinson ’11 and her students delve into the clinical, societal and historical contexts of opioid addiction.
From an early age, Shivon Robinson ’11 knew she wanted to help people. That natural inclination, combined with a deep curiosity about the mechanics of the human mind, eventually led her to Williams—and back again. “I’ve always been interested in neuropsychiatry, trying to understand what’s happening in the brain,” says Robinson, who joined the faculty as an assistant professor of psychology in 2019.
As a neuroscientist, she is especially interested in the relationship between the brain, drugs and behavior—a topic of increased focus given the growing opioid epidemic in the U.S. In her course, Opioids and the Opioid Crisis: The Neuroscience Behind an Epidemic, she and her students explore how drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and heroin hijack the brain’s reward pathway, impair decision-making and cause people to develop a strong physical and psychological dependency. In addition to delving into the clinical side of neuroscience, the course also examines the historical and societal contexts surrounding the use and abuse of these particular drugs, with the intention to help shift public perception about those who suffer from addiction.
“Something missing in courses that I took that talked about drugs, abuse and neuropsychiatric diseases is what you as a layperson, as a friend, can do to address this problem,” says Robinson, who notes that most people, including her students, probably either know or know of someone who has been directly impacted by the opioid crisis. “There’s so much misinformation online and in general conversations. I hope from this class that my students can make evidence-based arguments when talking with their families and friends. When you’re able to inform other people, hopefully that’s when we’ll see some positive change.”
As an undergraduate, Robinson says she did not give much, if any, thought to teaching as a career. She figured she would go to medical school, “because that’s what you do when you’re interested in science,” she says. However, her introduction to lab work in her first year at Williams, doing research in close collaboration with faculty, turned out to be a life-changing experience.
Robinson worked with Betty Zimmerberg, now the Howard B. Schow ’50 and Nan W. Schow Professor of Neuroscience, emerita, all four years at Williams. “Being able to design my own experiments and have that hands-on experience was such a big factor in the trajectory of my personal development but also my professional development,” she says. “I really wanted to come back and provide that for students.”
Robinson currently has eight undergraduates working in her lab, studying the effects of gestational exposure to opioids. In particular, they’re examining responses to environmental factors, stress and/or adversity. Several of her former students are now doing research at top universities, including Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale.
Robinson says that throughout her career in academia, she often has encountered people who think that important, high-impact research can only be done at large universities—people who do not fully realize the potential of young scientists. A fierce advocate for liberal arts education, she knows that the kind of personal mentorship that happens at small colleges can have a profound impact.
“Having a liberal arts experience is actually what made me really excited about coming back and doing research,” Robinson says. “Being back at Williams is my dream job.”