For alumni and friends
of the university

The Einstein Example

Professor Emeritus of Psychology Gil Einstein outside the International African American Museum in Charleston, S.C. / Owen Withycombe

Professor Emeritus of Psychology Gil Einstein achieved the academic trifecta: passionate teacher, world-class researcher and a colleague who made his department a place where others wanted to be.

By Kelley Bruss

Einstein with his wife, Patty, in New Zealand.

Einstein with his wife, Patty, in New Zealand. / Courtesy Photo

Gil Einstein’s work in psychology has been cited nearly 19,000 times, enough to land him on a list of top scientists in the world.

But there’s another way to measure his impact on the field: one person at a time.

Michael Scullin ’07, for example, considers his work as an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University to be part of his former teacher’s legacy, “to pay forward the grace, the patience and the positivity he has shown me in my career and my life.”

Beth Pontari, Furman’s vice president for academic affairs and provost, says Einstein is the reason she started her teaching career in the university’s psychology department.

“I would not be sitting where I am if I had not had that relationship,” she says.

Einstein taught at Furman from 1977 until he retired in 2019. In 2023, he was ranked among the Best Psychology Scientists in the World by, which uses the number of times a scholar’s work is cited “as a proxy for disciplinary impact,” according to its announcement of the rankings.

“It’s a sign of innovation and it’s a sign of being the leader in an area,” Pontari says.

For Einstein, it’s satisfying knowing his ideas are moving forward.

“It feels like the work that you’re doing is not getting ignored and that it’s contributing to the development of science,” he says.

But these days Einstein spends more time on a surfboard than in a lab. He and his wife, Patty, moved to Daniel Island, South Carolina, about two years ago to be close to their children and grandchildren.

‘Life-altering experience’

Gilles Einstein was born in France. His father, a German Jew, had fled Frankfurt in 1933 and met Einstein’s mother in France. The family immigrated to New Jersey in 1955.

At Lafayette College, Einstein was a “good, but not great” student, he says. “I was studying to make good grades, but I wasn’t really absorbed by what I was studying.”

Einstein with his students

Einstein with his students on his last day of class before retiring in 2019. / Courtesy Photo

Then the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research in psychology gave him a “life-altering experience.”

“Psychology had everything to do with our lives,” he says. “It deals with things that we experience every day, and I discovered that I loved using the scientific method to solve problems. … After that, I started studying for the right reasons.”

He longed to give that kind of experience to students of his own someday. And the evidence suggests he did.

In fact, Scullin tells a story of his early years at Furman that bears striking similarity to Einstein’s Lafayette experience. Scullin started in a business program without feeling especially invested in his studies. That changed when he took a psychology class with Einstein.

Scullin says the most brilliant researchers sometimes have reputations as intimidating teachers. Einstein, however, was warm and welcoming. For Scullin, the class flipped a switch.

“I did my homework because I loved it so much,” he says.

Undergraduate research

Einstein earned his Ph.D. in experimental and cognitive psychology from the University of Colorado. He loved teaching as much as he loved researching, and he found Furman to be the perfect place to do both.

Undergrads were “the only option,” he says, “but it turns out they’re extremely capable.”

He chose not to start his summer research assistants with fully developed projects. Instead, he’d have them do background reading, discuss the readings as a group, then ask the students to think about the logical next steps.

This process almost always led to a close approximation of what he’d intended them to study all along.

“The difference was, they had ownership in the project,” he says.

“He got undergrads to do things that graduate students do,” Pontari says.

Undergraduate research is a defining feature of Furman today. But that wasn’t necessarily the case in the 1970s when Einstein first arrived. The psychology and chemistry departments were early adopters.

“Furman, to its credit, recognized the importance of it and encouraged it,” he says.

And to his credit, Einstein developed a reputation for the academic trifecta: passionate teacher, world-class researcher and a colleague who made his department a place where others wanted to be.

“There’s no one quite like Gil,” Pontari says. “He excelled in all the areas.”

Einstein didn’t expect other professors to copy him.

“He just expected you to really care about our students, about our department, about Furman and about each other,” she says.

Prospective memory

Einstein has spent his career studying memory and learning and how aging affects both.

His specialty is prospective memory – remembering to do things in the future. The earliest research in the field relied on surveys to ask people, for example, how good they were at remembering to pass a message to a friend.

With a colleague, Einstein developed a laboratory paradigm for studying prospective memory that is still being used today.

The testing allows objective comparisons, and one of its earliest findings was that prospective memory doesn’t automatically fade with age. When given a good memory cue, there’s little difference in prospective memory between the young and the old. But when asked to remember without the help of a cue, a significant age difference appears.

More recently, Einstein was working on ways to help younger students study more effectively. When the focus is shifted from rote memory to understanding concepts, students enjoy learning and get more out of their education.

He was testing study methods in which students read material, explain it back to themselves and connect it to something they already know. That work is continuing at Furman.

“Same amount of time, drastically different results,” Einstein says.

About that last name

And yes, he’s used to answering questions about his family connections.

“It’s a name that gets noticed,” he says.

Growing up, his grandfather told him the family was related to Albert Einstein. “But my father told me not to believe him,” he says.

It turns out his grandfather was right.

Albert was his third cousin, three times removed, or, if it’s easier to think of this way, his great-grandfather’s third cousin.

One of his standard opening lines for the first day of a new class was a reliable hit with students: “It’s not a close relationship, and I share very few genes in common.”

Of his many professional recognitions, Einstein is proudest of receiving the Association for Psychological Science Mentor Award, which “recognizes psychology researchers and educators who have shaped the future directions of science by fostering the careers of students and colleagues.”

Scullin considers himself a beneficiary of Einstein’s investment in the future.

At Baylor, he’s not trying to “be Gil,” which would only result in a bad version, he says. But in being himself, he’s trying to model what his teacher did.

 “I’ve, as often as possible, tried to apply Gil’s approach, the mentoring, that was so effective for me,” he says.