An Interview with David Vicario, Dean of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences
“I am learning to think like a social scientist,” says David S. Vicario, describing his immersive approach to his job as dean of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS) in the School of Arts and Sciences. Vicario’s background is in neuroscience and his specialty is studying the brain basis of vocal learning in songbirds. But since becoming dean in September 2018, his interactions with SBS faculty and exposure to SBS research have expanded his horizons. In this interview he talks about that experience and why students are drawn to SBS departments and programs.
Q: What is your academic background?
A: I am trained as a neurophysiologist, but consider myself a behavioral neuroscientist. I’m interested in how the brain produces behavior. As we live in the world, and in our bodies, we get signals that we are hungry, or we see interesting things. The question that has always intrigued me is how does that translate into decisions and actions? I wanted to study the way the brain integrates all the information from the body and the outside world and produces behavior.
Q: How did that lead to your work with songbirds?
A: The songbird system corresponds closely to my interest in how sensory information is transformed into motor information. The songbirds hear the song of their parents, internalize it, and then use it to create a copy, just as human infants hear the speech of their caregivers and ultimately apply those sounds to objects in the world.
Q: With your background in neuroscience, what made you want to become SBS dean?
A: Becoming chair of the psychology department required me to dive deeper into the clinical and social aspects of psychology. That was a real education for me. Similarly, as SBS dean, I’m now working with economists, political scientists, sociologists, evolutionary and cultural anthropologists, and geographers. It’s an even bigger tent, and even more fascinating as an education.
Q: What have you learned?
A: I’ve always been politically and socially aware, but interaction with SBS faculty has given me a different grasp of current social and political situations. The most serious problems today have to do with a breakdown of the political process, international friction, inequality, and the danger these pose in terms of instability. These are the issues that social and behavioral scientists have been addressing for years.
Take a collective problem like climate change. Perhaps a miraculous solution may come from an engineering lab. But the problem in practice is actually a problem of social and political interactions, including decision-making based on ideological positions rather than shared mission, which results in political paralysis. The social sciences provide evidence-based analyses of where the dysfunction begins and how it develops.
Q: What are some of your priorities for the division?
A: I am interested in programs that will increase interaction among the departments and lead to interdisciplinary education opportunities. We have already been working to identify common themes. I would ultimately like to create an incentive structure for faculty to team teach in a way that exposes undergraduates to a rich array of perspectives on a single topic, such as inequality.
Q: What enrollment trends are you seeing in SBS?
A: Nearly half of Arts and Sciences students want education in the social and behavioral sciences — a total of 43 percent of SAS students who graduated in 2019 were in an SBS department. Clearly, they are interested in the subject matter; they are interested in the issues; and they are choosing with their feet.