Susan Smalley

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Susan Smalley
Susan Smalley.jpg
Born Susan Lee Smalley
(1955-02-18) February 18, 1955 (age 61)
Minneapolis, MN
Residence Los Angeles, CA
Alma mater University of Michigan
Occupation Behavioral geneticist
Organization Founder, Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior
Founding fellow, American College of Medical Genetics
International Society of Psychiatric Genetics
Notable work Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness
Board member of Co-chair, Equality Now
Founder, Cell-Ed
Spouse(s) Kevin Wall

Susan Smalley, Ph.D. is a behavioral geneticist, writer, and activist. The founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior (MARC), and Professor Emerita, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA,[1] Smalley is considered an expert in genetic influences in human behavior, childhood onset conditions of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the science of well-being. She is the co-author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness and more than 100 peer-reviewed papers,[2][3][4] and is an advocate for gender equality through education and the law as the co-chair of Equality Now and the co-founder of Cell-Ed, an educational platform for underserved adults delivered via mobile phones.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Smalley grew up in Fort Wayne and met her future husband, Kevin Wall, during her first year of high school. She left Fort Wayne at 18 and attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.[6] Smalley majored in biological anthropology and developed an interest in population genetics and human evolution while an undergraduate. She received a BA in Anthropology in 1976.[7]

Smalley moved to Los Angeles in 1976 and in 1979 began graduate school at UCLA, where she studied biological anthropology with an emphasis on behavior genetics, the study of genetic influences on human behavior. As behavior genetics was an emerging field, Smalley created a program of study consisting of courses in anthropology—population and quantitative genetics—coupled with biology, genetics, and psychology. She received an M.A. in 1981 in Anthropology and in 1985, after completing a dissertation in the genetics of spatial ability, she received a Ph.D. in Anthropology with specialization in population genetics. She remained at UCLA and completed post-doctoral fellowships in medical genetics and childhood psychopathology.[8][9]


Smalley began her academic career at UCLA in the department of Anthropology and Biology, where she taught undergraduate courses in human genetics and biological anthropology. As an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, she focused her research on autism, which was then a rare disorder, affecting only 1 in 2000 people. In 1988, Smalley published a review paper on the genetics of autism, which was at that time considered largely environmental in etiology; the paper led to her first National Institute of Health (NIH) grant to investigate genetic determinants in autsim via multiplex family studies and through the study of tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder with known behavior sequelae, including autism. For the following ten years, Smalley continued her autism research and produced numerous papers on the genetics and subclinical variants of autism beyond the diagnostic classification. Her focus later shifted to ADHD, and she received an NIMH grant to conduct a genome-wide scan in ADHD, a highly heritable condition, using multiple affected siblings. Her lab published the first genome-wide scan in the disorder in conjunction with investigators at Oxford University and ultimately produced more than 40 publications, including a series of five papers on ADHD among a northern Finnish Birth Cohort.[10][11] Smalley subsequently focused much of her work on the strengths of those with ADHD, highlighting the increased rates of novelty-seeking and self-transcendence in this population and writing about how to reframe ADHD, characterizing it as a different way of thinking as opposed to a deficit.[12][13][14]

In 2002, Smalley was diagnosed with an early stage melanoma. Although she then considered herself a materialist, while on medical leave she explored yoga, massage, meditation, and other non-Western approaches to illness, which greatly impacted her recovery and view of the world. She said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times following her recovery that she experienced “unprecedented creativity and a profound sense of connectedness and felt changed.” [15] After her leave, Smalley began researching mindfulness meditation, and its impact on ADHD and other disorders, and was the lead author in a seminal 2007 study which demonstrated the relationship between meditation is enhanced cognitive functions in people with ADHD.[16] The experience led her to value the role of intuition as well as reason. Smalley subsequently founded the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior (MARC) in 2012. “We want to get people to try this experiential way of gaining knowledge to balance the reason-based knowledge we accumulate at a university,” Smalley said in an interview when the center opened. “At a university, we train you in critical thinking and the scientific method, which is fantastic, but we never focus on the intuitive and creative side, which is just as much a part of science as it is in art.” MARC describes its mission as fostering "mindful awareness across the lifespan through education and research to promote well-being and a more compassionate society." [1]

In 2010 Smalley teamed with Diana Winston to write Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness. In a review of the book, Publishers Weekly wrote: “The authors draw on their experience of bringing mindfulness to the masses and present the scientific side of mindfulness with an artful approach that results in a well-rounded synthesis accessible to scholars and laymen alike. Research studies, personal accounts, and practical applications illuminate mindfulness as a form of meditation; with activities as simple as breathing, listening, and walking, the practice can be easily incorporated into any lifestyle…Smalley and Winston will pique interest in living a completely present life, even if what that means has yet to be fully understood.”[4]

Smalley’s later research concentrated on mindfulness. Her group published one of the first papers on mindfulness as a complementary treatment in ADHD and a study looking at teaching mindfulness to children.[17][18]

Smalley retired as MARC's founding director in 2014 to focus on philanthropy and activism.

Philanthropy and advocacy[edit]

Much of Smalley's philanthropic work is related to promoting the rights of women and girls. She is the co-chair of Equality Now, a non-profit organization which works for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls around the world through grassroots women’s and human rights organizations and individual activists. Equality Now documents violence and discrimination against women and mobilizes international action to support efforts to stop these abuses.[19] She is also the co-founder of Cell-Ed, which she launched in 2011 with Wall. A mobile platform which teaches adults to read using cell phones, Cell-Ed was named by Intel as one of the "10 most innovative programs for ‘women helping women’."[5][20] Both Smalley and Wall are members of Gordon Brown's High Level Panel on Education, which aims to bring education to the fore of the global political agenda and which considers innovative approaches to global education.[9] Smalley wrote "Girls' Education: A Right to Learn" as part of her work on the High Level Panel.[21]

Personal life[edit]

Smalley and Wall, who live in Los Angeles, have been married since 1974. They have three children and a grandchild.[22] She is a contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today and a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. Smalley delivered the keynote speech at the UCLA Department of Anthropology commencement ceremony in 2013.[23]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Faculty and Staff". University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  2. ^ "Susan Smalley". Via Google Scholar. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  3. ^ Baruchin, Aliyah (March 8, 2008). "What to Ask About A.D.H.D.". New York Times. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  4. ^ a b "Nonfiction Book Review: Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  5. ^ a b "ICT in Education". United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  6. ^ Devin, Leonard (July 6, 2007). "Here comes the sun Kevin Wall taps Al Gore and other rock stars to fight global warming.". Fortune. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  7. ^ "Susan Smalley: Board of Directors". Equality Now. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  8. ^ "Genetic analysis of spatial ability, perceptual speed, and memory in an extended kindred". OCLC World Cat. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  9. ^ a b "High Level Panel on Education". High Level Panel on Education. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  10. ^ Healey, Melissa (January 28, 2008). "Growing up with, and out of, ADHD". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 22 December 2014. 
  11. ^ Voice of America. "What to Do About ADHD in Children?". Voice of America (via LD Online). Retrieved 22 December 2014. 
  12. ^ Smalley, SL; Asarnow, RF; Spence, MA (October 1, 1988). "Autism and genetics. A decade of research.". Arch Gen Psychiatry. 45: 953–61. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1988.01800340081013. PMID 3048227. 
  13. ^ Smalley, Susan (November 17, 2011). "Living And Loving ADHD". Huffington Post. Huffington Post. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  14. ^ Brown, Thomas (October 1, 2006). Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 202. ISBN 0300119895. Retrieved 22 December 2014. 
  15. ^ Dunn, Samantha (March 1, 2012). "The California Cure: Meditating on the Possibilities". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  16. ^ Goleman, Daniel (May 12, 2014). "Exercising the Mind to Treat Attention Deficits". New York Times. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  17. ^ "Activities and Programs That Improve Children's Executive Functions" (PDF). Current Directions in Psychological Science. October 21, 2012. Retrieved 22 December 2014.  External link in |website= (help)
  18. ^ McCullough, Linda. "Mindfulness Skills Useful in Addressing ADHD". PsychCentral. Retrieved 22 December 2014. 
  19. ^ Olivier, Ellen (November 5, 2014). "Gloria Steinem, Salma Hayek Pinault honored at Equality Now event". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  20. ^ time "Teaching Adult Literacy: One Cell Phone at a Time" Check |url= value (help). Changemakers. Retrieved 19 December 2014. 
  21. ^ "Girls' Education: A Right To Learn" (PDF). Gordon and Sarah Brown. Retrieved 19 December 2014. 
  22. ^ Smalley, Susan (December 1, 2014). "Look Around and Look Within". Psychology Today. Retrieved 19 December 2014. 
  23. ^ "Keynote Speech". UCLA (via YouTube). July 25, 2013. Retrieved 19 December 2014.