Nicole Prause
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“Initially, sex was just sexy,” says Nicole Prause, of her early doctoral work in sex research at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she also collaborated with The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. “It is the only field I know of for which the journals had to be hidden behind the library counter, because people would steal the articles… Once I got over the fact that I was getting to monitor genital blood flow, there turned out to be many exciting ‘big science’ questions remaining in sexual functioning… Over time, this focus has naturally broadened into alcohol and approach motivation.”

After obtaining her Ph.D. from Bloomington in 2007, Prause went on to work as an assistant professor at Idaho State University, and from there moved to Albuquerque, where she holds a joint appointment at the Mind Research Network and the University of New Mexico. Prause’s lab uses a broad array of methodologies, including fMRI, EEG/ ERP, startle, plethysmography, and body temperature recordings. “Sex research is a fantastic field for people who like to play with electronics…because we still are at early stages of developing and studying our own instruments,” says Prause. “Discordance of sexual systems-cognitive, behavioral, physiological-is a major area of research in sexuality, so it is helpful to be very flexible with a wide variety of tools.” The multi-method approach has also been pivotal in recent research in the lab-for instance, using EEG, Prause and her students recently demonstrated that the long-held belief that there is a greater disconnect between genital and self-reported sexual arousal in women than in men was in fact only true in some situations; in others, men show the greater disconnect. “In another study, we recently demonstrated that the level of sexual arousal accounts for sexual risk intentions beyond even high alcohol doses,” says Prause. “Studying how sexual arousal increases sexual risk intentions is now a major focus of the current work in the lab. We are collecting data on what individual differences-including sexual compulsivity and asexual identity- affect people’s ability to modify their own sexual arousal using a multi-method design.”

Prause notes that, along with the typical pressures of grants, publication, and tenure, scholars in the field of sex research face a unique set of challenges: “Sex research initially was treated as a fringe science, and sex researchers still have a tendency to work more in isolation than other areas of psychology. Our non-sex-researcher colleagues have shied away from the controversial topic and were probably right to do so in the past,” says Prause. “[After all], a sex grant is the only grant in the history of NIH to have had its funding rescinded after it was awarded… I think the field is facing the challenge of communicating our relevance to our colleagues. Sexual motivation clearly is a major reward drive motivating health-relevant behaviors, but I still hear objections that sex is too much IRB trouble or that their wife did not want them working in this area-the latter I have heard twice!” Still, Prause continues to build relationships with colleagues interested in motivation and real-world behaviors who agree that sex is not “somehow completely different from other drives.”

Though the Mind Research Network does not have its own graduate program, Prause continues to mentor students through the institute’s affiliation with the University of New Mexico. Her lab values students with a diverse array of programming and physiology experiences-particularly a “scientific attitude towards sex”-though she does not necessarily require a strong traditional psychology background. Curiosity and creativity are equally important to Prause. “Sex is naturally fascinating, so it is easy to turn that motivation to learn about sex into broadly-trained clinical/neuro/biopsych students,” she says, of how she fosters an imaginative approach in her students. “Want to study people’s response to erotica? Great! Build this computer with me, then learn to modify this DMDX script, and start working with R for those cognitive models. Think there’s more to male sexual response than penile turgidity? Fascinating! Come with me to the engineering lab to find a way to build your new measure, hold this voltmeter, and let’s create a new design to minimize sexual habituation. My goal is to foster what natural fascination with the topic I can, and give students enough guidance to learn how to learn on their own.”

Over the next ten years, students who work with Prause can expect not only to be at the forefront of a developing methodology, but also to delve further into “basic questions of approach motivation-[for example], the specificity of sexual reward, malleability of approach motivation-and how to apply this information to curb sexual risk taking, especially as it co-occurs with substance use.” This will be done not only through work in the lab, but also through her work with researchers across the country. As technology advances apace, these collaborations afford Prause ample tools to answer her research questions. Still, there are areas of the field-like use of advanced Bayesian and mixed statistical methods- that could be improved. Also, “the one innovation I would love to see,” says Prause, “is that we stop using the IAPS porn.”

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