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Nalini Ambady M.A. ’85 remembered as serious scientist, special person

  • Nalini Ambady
    Nalini Ambady
    The W&M graduate was a well-known and successful social psychologist.
    Photo by Harry Bahlman

When Nalini Ambady arrived as a graduate student at William & Mary in the early 1980s, she made an immediate impression in the university’s psychology department.

“The master’s program is fairly small, so the faculty tend to get to know the students pretty well,” said John Nezlek, a psychology professor who knew Ambady. “She was a sylphlike young lady, whose name many could not quite figure out how to pronounce. She was good-spirited, and her Indian background predisposed her to be polite in a bit of an old-fashioned way (for Americans), but she also had a strong sense of independence. She was no pushover, particularly when it came to discussing her research interests.”

Nalini Ambady (pronounced NAH-lih-nee am-BAH-dee) graduated from William & Mary in 1985 with her master’s degree and would go on to become a well-known and successful social psychologist. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded Ambady the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

“She was a very successful scientist – very successful,” Nezlek said. “And her nature was such that she was not egotistical about it. She was a very well-balanced person.”

Following a long and very public fight with leukemia, Ambady died on Oct. 28. The New York Times, which covered her research, published a story this week on Ambady’s impact to the field of social psychology. Her research on intuition, or snap judgments, broke new ground and was eventually featured in the 2005’s Blink, a best-selling nonfiction book by Malcolm Gladwell.

“In 40 milliseconds, people can accurately judge what we are saying with our expression,” Ambady was quoted as saying in a 2007 Times story about her research on first impressions. Ambady and psychologist Robert Rosenthal published an article on that research in 1992 in the journal Psychology Bulletin.

“Significantly, they found that information gleaned from these thin slices (or nonverbal snapshots) resembles information garnered from long observation to a far greater degree than supposed,” the Times article said.

Ambady, who was born in Calcutta, came to William & Mary after receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Delhi. She would later earn her doctorate in social psychology from Harvard. Before Stanford, she previously taught at the College of Holy Cross, Harvard and Tufts.

Once she became ill, Ambady used it as an opportunity to raise public awareness about the need to recruit more minority bone-marrow donors. In the United States, Asians – and minorities in general – are vastly underrepresented in donor registries, according to the article in the Times.

Nezlek said he last saw Ambady a few years ago at a conference in Chicago. In Williamsburg, she will be remembered as an unselfish person and exceptional scientist.

“She was a serious scientist who did a lot of excellent scholarly work,” Nezlek said. “She knew her stuff. And she was very thankful for the start she received (at William & Mary). She believed that her time here genuinely helped prepare her for a very successful career, and even though our role in her education was just to get her off to a good start, we have always been very proud of her and her accomplishments. Her loss is truly heartbreaking, and our sympathies go out to her family.”