New faculty

SFU Psychology Welcomes New Assistant Professor Joanna Peplak

August 28, 2023

Joanna Peplak has joined the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University as an assistant professor.

Dr. Peplak received her PhD in developmental science from the University of Toronto in 2020, where she studied children’s and adolescents’ morally-relevant emotions such as compassion and schadenfreude. Most recently, she was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Irvine where she studied children’s narrative and memory development. This Fall 2023 term, she will be teaching PSYC 450: Advanced Topics in Developmental Psychology (Psychosocial Development). Learn more about Dr. Joanna Peplak below!

What brought you to Simon Fraser University?

Since graduate school, I have strived to become a professor at a university that promotes discovery, innovation, and creativity within a respectful and inclusive environment—so, here I am! I began my career in research as an undergraduate student then graduate student at the University of Toronto. Throughout my long and arduous (but fulfilling!) journey through graduate school, my interest in research and teaching unfolded. Upon completing my doctorate, I knew I wanted to get more experience in the field, so the next stop for me was a postdoc position. I applied to and received a position at the University of California-Irvine (UCI), which was an incredible experience in many ways. I lived close to the beach and had palm trees in my backyard, but  most importantly, I immersed myself in research and honed my skills, interests, and ideas. After three years at UCI, I was ready to start my own research program as a professor. The position in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University (SFU) opened in the fall of 2022. I immediately applied and the rest is history!

As I begin my journey as an Assistant Professor, I look forward to creating connections with the stellar faculty and students at SFU, and with families and organizations in the community. SFU, located in the truly beautiful British Columbia, is a world-class institution and I hope to meet you on my journey!

How did your research interests in moral and emotional development in children get started?

Way back in 2011, I was a camp counsellor for a summer camp in Milton, Ontario. One day, when I was leading a group of ten 5-year-olds, something happened that sparked my interest in child psychology (a sort of “canon event”, if you will). It was time to go out to the lake for a swim, but one child was taking quite a while to get ready. When we finally started to walk down to the lake, the frustration of waiting and missing valuable swim time got the best of another camper in the group and they pushed the child down the stairs. The child was okay in the end, but this act of aggression made me think deeply about the factors that might have influenced this reaction. Did a lack of emotion regulation or empathy play a role? Did the camper’s guilt after this act motivate them to behave differently in the future? What was this camper’s relationship with their parents, and did they ever have a conversation about managing emotions? My natural curiosity in understanding the “whys” of emotion, morality, and behavior through observing others led me to develop my program of research.

What is the most important issue that your research work addresses? And why/how is it important to you in particular?

Currently, alongside my research on aggression and immoral emotions such as greed and envy, I am very interested in finding ways to develop children’s prosociality (e.g., promoting their inclination to share with, help, and include others) and cultivate healthy peer relationships—particularly amongst diverse peers. Societies in Canada are increasingly diversifying, and individuals identify with and belong to multiple social groups. Understanding how children learn to appreciate others’ perspectives and cooperate with and respect those who are different from them may provide insight into the foundations of equity and care within “super-diverse” societies (like the GVA!). Kindness research is important to me because there’s a lot of power in being kind. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without the kindness of family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers, and I believe it is a major channel through which we move forward as a society.

What are you most looking forward to in working at SFU and also in the Department of Psychology?

I am looking forward to getting to know and working with the faculty and students in the Department of Psychology and at SFU more broadly. I share some research interests with scholars in the Department and I am looking forward to having insightful conversations that may lead to research projects down the line. I am also excited to mentor graduate and undergraduate students and to teach various psychology courses in the coming years. I appreciate discussing morality and child development with students—I always learn something new about the topic and/or about myself!

Do you have any advice to students who may want to consider graduate school or a career in Psychology?

The best way to figure out which career path to go down is to get to know yourself better. As Carl Jung once said: “who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” There may be societal pressures pulling you in one direction over another, but when you lean into your own strengths, challenges, and proclivities, you will find that you are naturally drawn down a certain path. A career in psychology might be the right fit for you if you are curious about human behavior. There are plenty of careers in psychology that don’t require a graduate school degree, but a Master’s and/or PhD open up many additional doors within research, teaching, and clinical practice. Graduate school requires a lot of independent thought, discipline, and time—think wisely about how pursuing higher education may fit within your values and priorities. Even if you go for a degree in psychology and realize it's not for you after some time, the skills you garner (e.g., understanding others, interpreting data, presenting research findings) will be widely applicable to other careers. There are certainly no right answers, only answers that are right for you.