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She just feels lucky: a life in balance

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Early in the 1960s, two sisters are playing in their home in Dover, a small town in the seacoast region of New Hampshire. Inevitably, the girls, aged four and six, begin to squabble, arguing over which of them will get to marry their father. Deciding to bring the case before the man himself, they run to find him.

To their surprise, their father turns to them angrily when he hears the cause of their dispute. “You’re not getting married until you’re 46,” he tells them in a huff. “You’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer and then you can get married. Getting married is not an accomplishment.”

For Gina Mireault, developmental psychologist, researcher and professor at Johnson State College (JSC), this moment stands out for her as an example of one of the ways in which her family was different from those around her when she was growing up. Her father, who remains her hero, was a criminal defense attorney and was the first empowering feminist in her life at a time when most girls were receiving an entirely different message.

A few years later, when Mireault was 9, her mother passed away, leaving her father a single parent. He was a good but permissive one, with few rules save these: do well in school and become a doctor or a lawyer.

Mireault did exceedingly well in school, much to her father’s delight. In 1992 she graduated from the University of Vermont with a Ph.D in experimental and developmental psychology and with a passion for teaching that had been sparked during a requisite of the program that required her to teach a lab section of research methods and statistics.

Mireault remembers an exchange with a student, on her first day teaching this lab section in grad school, in which a student suddenly understood a concept she was explaining. “It was this hair-raising, goosebumps moment for me,” she says. “I just loved it. And I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

It just so happened there was a position for a developmental psychologist available at JSC the same year that Mireault was finishing school. She was hired for the position and she has remained ever since.

Mireault’s love for her work as a professor becomes immediately evident in the classroom. She teaches with her whole body engaged — laughing loudly with her head thrown back and her shoulders leaning forward; pointing with a sweeping arm and shoulder at a student who has given the right answer with an excited “yes!” or making good use of a theatrical pause from time to time in which only her head will move as her gaze sweeps the room with waggling eyebrows to send a good joke or pun home, often accompanied by a triumphant, “That just happened.”

Lively and bright natured, she often paces while she talks. She speaks animatedly, telling a handful of stories from her life throughout the class period, anecdotal examples to the lesson, and then listens to a dozen more from her students with intense and empathetic interest.

In addition to her work as a professor, Mireault has worked as a researcher for the past 25 years — studying first the effect of parental loss, then childhood tantrums and, most recently, infant humor. Over the last decade especially, her research has begun to receive, and to bring her, more attention.

She has been published in scientific journals, invited to speak globally and recognized in mainstream publications such as the Washington and Huffington Posts. She has also been recognized on television programming, like the NBC Nightly News, and has appeared as part of a PBS Nova special entitled “What Makes Us Human.”

Mireault, though, doesn’t take much credit for all of this attention. “It’s just weird,” she says, seated comfortably on a beautiful, colorfully-upholstered rocking chair in her office. “It’s really not all that admirable. What all of this says is less about me and more about the interest that people have in infant humor, which has been a complete surprise to me. I tend to think that I’m the only one interested [in something I’m studying] and then the next thing you know, Nova’s calling.”

It might be easier to accept that Mireault is somehow an accidental sidebar to her own success if her first foray into research, studying parental loss, hadn’t also been successful. Pulling from her own experience as a girl who’d lost her mother, Mireault went into grad school intending to study the effect of parental loss, a line of study she followed for another decade after graduating. After becoming a mother herself, Mireault extended this line of study to look at motherlessness and its effect on motherless mothers. Hope Adelmann, a journalist and one of the leading authors on parental loss, came across this line of work and incorporated it into her 2007 book “Motherless Mothers.” For Mireault, this was a highlight of her work as a researcher.

“To know that your work is moving beyond the people in your discipline, that’s really great.” Mireault says of her inclusion in Adelmann’s book. “You feel like, ‘Oh, maybe this is actually helping people as opposed to just informing other psychologists who are in the lab.’”

Students, such as Brady Rainville and others who have been given the opportunity to work as research assistants with Mireault over the last 25 years, will agree that her work has moved beyond the lab and into the realm of helping people.

For the last three years, Brady Rainville worked closely with Mireault as a student, teacher’s assistant in the classroom and research assistant in the laboratory. For Rainville, Mireault has had a clear and distinct impact on his life. When he enrolled in Johnson four years ago he was an undeclared major, unsure of where he was headed. Now, thanks to the tutorship and opportunities offered to him by Mireault, his plan is to follow in her footsteps.

“I want to do what Gina does,” Rainville says. “I want to be a researcher outside of the classroom and then inside of the classroom I want to be with students and help.”

For her part, Mireault is quick to point out that her successes in research wouldn’t be possible without the students who have helped her since the beginning and without the faculty who have supported her. And while she has been approached by two other universities expressing interest in her as a professor, Mireault is happy to stay at the state college where she began her career 25 years ago.

“I love Johnson,” she says, “I’m at this point in my career because of Johnson. I really think that if I had been at another institution . . . and had said I want to study infant humor they would have not supported that. I think Johnson allows me to do many things . . . It allows me to have a very direct influence on the core curriculum. It allows me to do as much research as I want without being a publish or perish kind of institution. And I also love the people here . . . It tends to just be a real sense of community and I think that’s rare. I also really love the students here.”

For a long moment, she pauses to think, to reflect about her life at Johnson and her years spent here as a professor, a researcher and a friend to a well-liked group of colleagues. Running late to her next class, with her arm full of books and her cellphone in hand, she smiles widely. “I just feel lucky.”

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She just feels lucky: a life in balance