Opening Doors for Over 50 Years: Jane Flinn Notes a Milestone with George Mason University

by Anne Reynolds

Opening Doors for Over 50 Years: Jane Flinn Notes a Milestone with George Mason University

Jane Flinn has a fascination with the brain that she has shared with Mason students for over fifty years.

Her work has left a lasting mark on the psychology program, the university, and of course, the legion of students she has trained. Her service to the department, where she taught since 1974, has been distinguished: since 2016, she has served as the director of Mason’s Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Program; from 1995-2006 she directed that program’s predecessor, the Biopsychology Program. From 2006-2016 she was the director of the new undergraduate Neuroscience Program. From 1984-1995, she served as the the chair of the Department of Psychology

Along the way, she has received the David J. King Teaching Award, Mason’s highest award for teaching, the University Mentoring Award, and the Distinguished Faculty Award (twice).

Flinn helped lead the creation of the doctoral program in psychology at Mason. Launched as a PsyD, it was one of the first two doctoral programs at Mason, and she later spurred its conversion to a PhD program. During her tenure as chair, she reintroduced a master’s degrees in psychology to the curriculum, led the move to create specialties within the MA program, and introduced the accelerated master’s degree in the psychology concentration of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. She hired many of the faculty members who have made Mason’s psychology department a leader in research for the university; under her leadership, the National Chronicle of Higher Education recognized the department as one of the most improved programs in the country.

But it was not psychology that brought her to Mason.

Flinn’s first educational interest was in civil engineering. However, finding the field discouraging to women, she moved to physics, “which was considered positively feminine in comparison to civil engineering,” she said in a 2019 teaching statement. She earned an undergraduate degree in physics at Oxford University, and a master’s degree at UCLA. Following her PhD at Catholic University, she came to work in 1969 at then brand-new, much smaller, George Mason University as a member of the physics department faculty, working part-time because she had a four-year-old daughter at home. “I think it’s fair to say that when I came to Mason, I pretty well knew somebody in every department,” she said.

Flinn’s interest in the brain and social issues arose from a conversation with a psychiatrist while on vacation, and she began coursework in psychology, culminating in a PhD in psychology from the George Washington University. She began teaching psychology courses in Mason’s Department of Behavioral Sciences – the precursor to Mason’s psychology program – along with her teaching in the physics department, which she continued until 1984, when she was named chair of the Department of Psychology.

Flinn particularly enjoys working with students, at the both undergraduate and graduate levels. “I think a number of things have kept me at Mason, but perhaps one of the most important is how much I’ve enjoyed working with the students,” she said. “Education has changed my life, and so I do think that education opens doors, and at Mason, it opens doors for students who would not otherwise be able to get this education.”

She believes that encouraging students to explore a breadth of courses allows them to make a more informed choices about their areas of interest. She values flexibility in education and encourages psychology undergraduates to explore the variety of fields within the discipline. She has welcomed students outside of the department through a course she developed, The Brain in Books and Film (recently offered as a 500-level special topic), which introduces students to popular press works about the brain, including topics of sleep, mental illness, stress, aging, and physical damage to the brain.

She appreciates Mason’s emphasis on research opportunities for undergraduates and takes pride in finding opportunities for her students to excel: “It’s satisfying to discover things which are new and interesting. It’s also satisfying when your students go on to be successful.”

Keith Renshaw, chair, Psychology Department, said that “Jane is an all-around wonderful researcher, teacher, colleague, and person. She substantially shaped the direction of our department and continues to this day to contribute to the development of her students and to the field’s understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions.”

Susanne Denham, Professor Emerita, worked with Flinn for decades. “She exemplifies the tag line on her emails that reads, ‘Make haste to be kind,’” she said.