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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Rule's orientation leads to career path

For the parents of most graduating high school seniors, the concept of a son or daughter beginning an Ivy League education is a gleeful one — a dream come true.

But when the parents of Nicholas Rule, now a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Tufts, sent their son off to his freshman year at Dartmouth College, they were full of reservations.

"They didn't want me to go; they thought I should stay home," Rule said. "They weren't at all supportive of college."

Rule remembers his upbringing in rural Florida, where his fundamentalist Christian family looked upon homosexuals with vicious disapproval and his classmates persistently picked on those who showed signs of being out of the ordinary.

The youngest of four children, Rule is gay but was unconscious of the fact before college. Against his best efforts to conform to "heterosexual standards," fellow classmates picked on Rule for seeming different, "seeming gay" — a phenomenon that that spawned a deep curiosity about the nature of non-verbal communication and the accuracy of human visual perception.

For Rule, such curiosity was two-fold: Part of it stemmed from the fact that others could detect his sexual identity before he could, and the rest was rooted in his ability to read and use the non-verbal cues from others' behavior to protect himself.

"It was so interesting to me how I could be so unaware of [my sexual orientation] and so completely repressed and other people could still tell, how it was sort of being communicated through that, even though I didn't intend to do it," Rule said. "In fact, I had every reason to hide it."

"When I was growing up, it was such a rough place that you were always on the lookout, trying not to get beat," he continued. "And so I found that you really had to pay attention to non-verbal cues, and that survival depended on that."

Leaving the conservative roots of his upbringing, Rule dove headfirst, albeit fearfully, into the ivory tower, determined from the get-go to double major in psychology and linguistics.

Transitioning from what Rule described as a "horrible, homophobic place" to the collegiate landscapes of Hanover, N.H., adjustment was necessary.

"I'm the only one in my family who's gone to college," Rule said. "I'd never seen snow or anything. So I went there, had a difficult transition; realized I was gay, which made things more difficult."

His difficulties entering college were compounded by an atmosphere at Dartmouth that was unexpectedly unfriendly to homosexuals, Rule said.

 "Dartmouth was very conservative," he said. "Had I known I was gay, I would not have gone to Dartmouth."

But a difficult transition made for an easy path to academic success for the Floridian. "Fortunately, I was very into my work," Rule said.

The period between his graduation from Dartmouth and the beginning of his graduate studies at Tufts proved to be yet another difficult transition Flordian described as the "worst month" of his life.

Joining up with Professor of Psychology Nalini Ambady, Rule has worked tirelessly in the same fashion that led him to academic success as an undergraduate, devoting nearly ten hours per day at the psychology lab and even continuing his research into the weekends. His daily routine often consist of working at the lab until about 8 p.m., working out at the gym, cooking a late dinner and conducting more research before retiring to bed.

"We're always working," he said. "It's almost like being in the military or something because our life really revolves around it."

Alongside Ambady, hard work has gained Rule a name in the world of psychology, with many of his studies on the nature of non-verbal communication and visual perception appearing in psychology journals or gaining attention from publications and bloggers.

Still, Rule's successes in the world of academia have not gained him much clout in the eyes of his own family.

"They don't understand it and they think the gay thing is a huge problem," said Rule, whose sister doesn't like having him around her children because of his sexual orientation. "My brother-in-law doesn't talk to me, and I've known him since I was nine."

Rule explained his family's peculiar reactions to his work, which in many cases has focused primarily on sexual orientation. "When my first paper came out, they were like, ‘Okay, so you worked for a year and a half to produce this paper in a magazine that no one's ever heard of and nobody reads and nobody buys,'" he said. "[But] if I had been on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' or ‘Jeopardy,' they'd think I was the smartest person in the world."

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