Peggy Mason, PhD

Rat Empathy Findings Mirror Human Compassion and Inclusivity

“If you’re sensitive to the emotional state of the others in the social group, you’re going to do better,” says neurobiology professor Peggy Mason. She’s describing the evolutionary basis for empathic behavior in rodents, the current focus of her research. She and her colleagues recently observed that a rat, responding to the emotional distress of a partner rat confined to a restraining tube, will work hard to open the door of the tube and set the partner free.

It’s a groundbreaking discovery with broad implications for behavioral research. But when explaining the natural links between social cooperation and long-term success, Mason could just as easily be describing the intellectual culture she nurtures for the students in her lab—or, for that matter, the environment she discovered when she first joined the UChicago faculty.

“I arrived at UC in 1992 just after a group of gay and lesbian faculty had successfully worked with the administration to put in what was then, and actually still remains, the most comprehensive domestic partnership policy permitted by law,” she remembers. The policy “made a big emotional and practical difference to my partner and me” and sent a powerful message that the University’s commitment to its intellectual mission is paramount and unqualified. To this day, she adds, “I feel like my being a lesbian is a non-issue.  And that is exactly what I want.”

Mason places a similar priority on inclusivity and mutual respect in her classroom, where she fosters open discussion, creative thinking, and rigorous inquiry. “I want everyone who comes into the lab to have the chance to make an intellectual contribution,” she says. “Whether they do or not is largely up to them, but I want them to have the opportunity.”