Ask a Professor-October 2016

Ask a Professor: Dr. Susan Clayton

This blog is designed to enhance the work done by the Society for the Study of Human Development (SSHD) to support students and junior scholars through connections with established researchers.

claytonThis month we feature Dr. Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and chair of the program in environmental studies at the College of Wooster. Dr. Clayton is also past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). In this interview, Dr. Clayton provides insight into strategies to use psychology to help save the world.



What is the main focus of your work?

My research focuses on the ways in which people construct a relationship with the natural world, within a social context. In other words, what kinds of social interactions affect people’s attention to, interpretation of, and concern about environmental issues? My hope is that this research can help to guide practices, such as educational or conservation programs, that both promote opportunities for people to enjoy nature and also encourage environmental concern.

How did you get started doing translational or applied research?

As a graduate student in social psychology, I began to be interested in the ability of psychological research to inform important social issues, such as gender discrimination. Early involvement with SPSSI provided me with help and moral support: evidence that other researchers were making the same connection, and a journal that highlighted this research. I gradually realized that environmental issues could also be illuminated through psychological research. After I started doing research in this area, I recognized the need but also the opportunity to speak to non-psychologists, especially policymakers and conservation scientists. Over time, people began to contact me about opportunities to apply my research.

How do you bring your findings to the attention of policy makers?

Communicating with policymakers is a real challenge. SPSSI now has a policy director who helps to identify opportunities and to disseminate information about relevant psychological research. Mostly through this channel, I have spoken at a side event at the United Nations and have visited the Hill to speak with congressional staffers. I have also worked with a nonprofit agency whose goal is to promote attention to climate change among diverse audiences, including business and religious leaders as well as policymakers. The key is to utilize organizational networks.


What barriers have you faced in doing applied or translational research, and how did you overcome them?

I have found the biggest barriers to be a lack of common language and of a common location for sharing information. In other words, we’re not all attending the same conferences and reading the same journals. Things have become easier with the increase in interdisciplinary journals. But I have to actively try to become broadly informed rather than restricting myself to my own professional specialty.

In your experience, how does doing applied or translational research fit into an academic career?

The experience of fitting translational research into an academic career can vary widely depending on the institutional context. In many ways, translational research is increasingly valued and there are more academic centers, and funding opportunities, that emphasize interdisciplinary collaborations to address applied problems. However, top universities often still want their faculty to publish in the main disciplinary journals, which emphasize experimental rigor and not applications. I think it has helped me to be at a small institution where I have many opportunities to have cross-disciplinary conversations, and flexibility is probably more highly valued than specialization.

What advice do you have for colleagues doing this type of work?

First, focus on reaching a wide audience. Although not every communication has an impact, broader dissemination increases the likelihood that the message will reach someone who can use the information. Second, be prepared to communicate to these diverse groups. Find ways to describe the research results using language that makes the significance clear to non-specialists. Finally, look for opportunities to get involved. The points of potential impact will not necessarily present themselves in an obvious way.

I would advise junior scholars to be motivated by the great potential of translational research.  I went into psychology not only because it was fascinating but because I wanted to do something useful. When psychologists speak only to other psychologists, they are missing the opportunity to take the knowledge they have gained and share it with those who can utilize it to the benefit of society.

If you are a researcher doing applied or translational work, we want to hear from you! Contact the series editor, Dr. Jennifer Agans, at to be featured in this blog. Junior scholars are also welcome to submit questions you would like to see answered in future editions of the blog.


Ask a Professor-July 2016

Mentorship Moment: Advice from SSHD President Kristine Ajrouch

This blog is designed to enhance the work done by the Society for the Study of Human Development (SSHD) to support students and junior scholars through connections with established researchers in the field of Developmental Science. The focus for the first several posts in this series is how developmental science can be used to make a difference in the world.

kristineThis month we feature Dr. Kristine Ajrouch, current president of SSHD and professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Dr. Ajrouch is also a Research Fellow with the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. In this interview, Dr. Ajrouch discusses her work with the metro-Detroit Arab American community and provides systematic advice for leveraging the combination of research expertise and stakeholder relationships to improve lives and address community challenges.

How is your work applied or translational?

I have two strands of research that overlap in important ways emphasizing on the one hand studies related to aging and life course, and on the other studies pertaining to Arab Americans and the Middle East.  These interests have included systematic study of social relations, immigration, identity and forgiveness. The impetus for my scholarly foci has been a sincere commitment to better understanding human lives so that such knowledge may be used to address emerging as well as longstanding challenges that individuals, communities and society face.

How do you work with communities?

One community I work closely with is Arab Americans living in the metro-Detroit area of Michigan.  U.S. Census data confirms that metro-Detroit is home to the largest, most visible concentration of Arab Americans in the United States.  Working on issues of identity, aging, and forgiveness, I have contributed to a growing body of knowledge about the metro-Detroit Arab American community in particular.  The results of my studies have been shared with community stakeholders, and laid the foundation for a trusting relationship.  My research has involved linking with schools, families, mosques, churches, student organizations, and social service organizations, each of which saw value in each research project.  Research findings have been reported in mass media outlets. Translating research findings into helpful programs and policies requires patience and diligence, an effort I continue to make.

What best practices would you recommend to colleagues?

Applied research should be accompanied by a genuine passion to support the individuals, groups, and communities with whom one works. Collaboration with communities requires a sincere commitment to regular communication that involves face-to-face as well as telephone and electronic contact.  It is important to ensure transparency and convey honest care and interest in community well-being.  Hence, openness to hearing and listening to the needs, hopes, and desires of community stakeholders is highly important.

Communities are sometimes skeptical about the need for research to address an identified challenge. Emphasizing a strengths-based approach is helpful.  In other words, conveying that a researcher sees positives and value in the individuals, groups, and communities studied often alleviates mistrust and contributes to the unveiling of the identified challenge for the community.

In your experience, how does doing this type of work affect tenure and promotion?

Pre-tenure scholars would be well-advised to commit to establishing a record of research that situates him/her as one with expertise in the issue of interest.  It is important to recognize that applied and translational work is more likely to be possible and influential once an established record of scholarly activity in an area is accomplished. Moreover, institutional requirements need to be carefully understood.  Universities vary in the ways they evaluate scholarly output, and so adhering to tenure and promotion requirements of a specific institution should be the first commitment.  With tenure and promotion, one becomes better poised to affect change in that 1) the scholar has achieved a recognized record of research in a particular area; and 2) job security is achieved, providing support for wider and less conventional application of one’s expertise.

What advice do you have for researchers hoping to make a difference in the world?

Find your passion and dedicate your expertise to understanding the pertinent issues in a scholarly manner. This should be followed by a commitment to establishing a notable record of research while forming trusted relationships with community stakeholders.  This will allow for the development of recognized expertise. Together, these may be used to leverage engagement with and change in communities, ultimately leading to making a difference in the world.

If you are a researcher doing applied or translational work, we want to hear from you! Contact the series editor, Dr. Jennifer Agans, at to be featured in this blog. Junior scholars are also welcome to submit questions you would like to see answered in future editions of the blog.

Ask a Professor-June 2016

Mentorship Moment: Applying Developmental Science with Richard M. Lerner

This past winter a group of leading scholars and members of the Society for the Study of Human Development (SSHD) engaged in an email conversation about how to support students interested in using developmental science to make a difference in the world. Many participants used examples from their own successful work to make the case that it is possible, if not yet highly valued in the field.

In reading these emails we (Dr. Jennifer Agans and Dr. Miriam Arbeit) were inspired to reach out to the SSHD Steering Committee with the idea of starting a regular blog series exploring issues related to conducting applied or translational work. The Committee endorsed this plan, and you are reading the first installment of the series. We hope the work presented in this blog will inspire you, and we encourage you to reach out to share your own success stories and lessons learned!

rich_lernerThis month we feature Dr. Richard M. Lerner, the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science and Director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development in the Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Dr. Lerner also serves on the SSHD Steering Committee and in 2013 received the Urie Bronfenbrenner Award for Lifetime Contribution to Developmental Psychology in the Service of Science and Society.

Tell us about your work with community partners or programs.

I direct a lab, the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, that is framed by the slogan: “We seek to discover what goes right in the lives of youth.”  Taking a strength-based approach to youth development, we conduct developmental and evaluation research that seeks to understand how we may align individuals and contexts to promote positive development of diverse youth, locally, nationally, and internationally.  Typically, we partner with youth-serving organization in this scholarship, and therefore our work is used to shape the policies, programs, and practices of these organizations.  For example, we have worked with 4-H, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., Williamson College of the Trades, Positive Coaching Alliance, and the United States Military Academy at West Point.

We have learned that many community partners need to have their capacity enhanced in order to engage effectively in the developmental and evaluation research we conduct.  Accordingly, through consultation and collaboration we provide a range of at cost or pro bono contributions to organizations, including helping with the development of theories of change, logic models, measurement/tool development, and design and implementation of evaluations. We have found that the key to effective university-community collaboration is humility of the part of the university researchers.  Community members are the experts on their lives, culture, and programs.  The best work we do occurs when we integrate the cultures of academe and the community in a collaboration that recognizes the assets that everyone brings to the work.


A graduate student, Jonathan Tirrell, collects data in an elementary school for one of Dr. Lerner’s studies.

Junior scholars often hear that doing this type of work will prevent us from getting tenure and promotion. In your experience, is that true?

It is unlikely that tenure and promotion will be awarded in Research 1 universities without the “conventional” credentials.  Indeed, tenure and promotion will not be likely to be awarded in any research active university without such credentials.  Therefore, community-collaborative research needs to be associated with grants to the university, and publications on which the candidate for tenure and promotion is first author.  The good news is that, across the past 20 years, community collaborative scholarship, and applied developmental science more generally, has become a valued facet of academic work.  Nevertheless, academics will not get faculty rewards from their departmental, college, or university tenure and promotion committees unless this work is coupled with grant-funded publications.

What advice do you have for researchers hoping to make a difference in the world?

Follow your passion.  Do the work you believe important.  However, recognize that you may need to err on the side of conventional scholarship pre-tenure in order to get the grants and publications to be awarded by tenure and promotion.  I have learned that the people given the greatest opportunities (both in number and quality) to engage in work that makes a difference are the ones who have excellent reputations as top-tier scientists. You need to develop the credentials and reputation that will be magnets for attracting the opportunities to make a difference.  World class heart surgeons do not reach this status overnight.  They need to spend years developing their skills and their credentials.  Applied developmental scientists need to have the same developmental commitment to their careers.

If you are a researcher doing applied or translational work, we want to hear from you! Contact the series editor, Dr. Jennifer Agans, at to be featured in this blog.