Nicky Newton left her home and “a very grounded upbringing” in Christchurch, New Zealand, at 17 to study flute. Years of intense work, including study with the principal flute player of the Vienna Philharmonic, Wolfgang Schulz, eventually landed Newton a job with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. But in her early 30s, something went badly wrong. The little finger and ring finger of Newton’s left hand began to curl into her palms when she tried to play—a characteristic of focal dystonia, an overuse syndrome that can affect musicians and others who stress parts of the body not intended for work.
Two years of unsuccessful rehabilitation, and the painful realization that she could no longer be a professional musician, upended Newton’s life. After she and her American husband moved to San Francisco, she enrolled in a few psych classes at City College of San Francisco. Focal dystonia has a psychological component, Newton says, and she felt driven to understand more about how the human mind works. At the age of 40, she transferred to UC Berkeley, where she earned a degree in psychology. “Undergrad just stoked the fire, and I realized there was more that I really wanted to know,” she recalls. Despite the challenges of being an older student, Newton came to the University of Michigan and ISR, where she immersed herself in the study of personality and social contexts. Newton completed her doctorate in psychology this spring, at the age of 49. “It’s been fantastic at times and hair pulling at times and very challenging all the way around.”
Perhaps in part because of her own unconventional path, Newton—who has short reddish-brown hair, a frank gaze, and a contagious laugh—chose to focus her research on women who have lived outside the norm. For her dissertation, she examined women in their early 60s, looking particularly at what relationship their life choices had with well being and personality. Specifically, she studied women who never had children, women who divorced after having children and didn’t remarry, and women who went into predominantly male professions. “All the non-normative women were rated by personality researchers as sharing a propensity to reject norms, but they reject them in different ways,” depending on which of the three groups they are in, Newton says. The research, she adds, shows just how complex the links between personality and life paths can be.
Newton’s dissertation research inspired her to dig deeper with a larger and more representative data set. With support from the Libby Douvan Junior Scholars Award in Life Course Development, Newton is now working with ISR researchers Jacqui Smith and Lindsay Ryan on a study looking at four cohorts of women in their 50s and 60s through the lens of social context. The first goal of the study is to identify the percentage of married women and single women—including divorced, widowed, and always single—at different points of time, and to see if those percentages have changed. Second, the researchers will look at differences between single and married women in social connectedness, and at how that influences health and well being. Among other things, Newton hopes the research will shed light on the impact of political and social events like the feminist movement on women’s psychological development.
Newton will continue her research collaboration in her new job as an assistant professor of psychology at Youngstown State University in Ohio, where she’ll be teaching lifespan development and research methods. In the meantime, she’s taking up a new challenge: tap dancing. “I’m hoping the music can translate to my feet,” she says. “I don’t want to be disappointed: Ex-musician does not make good on tap dance floor!”