Thought Leaders 009 | Dr. Stephanie Peterson | Part 1

Thought Leaders, we are sitting down and speaking with Dr. Stephanie Peterson about her history, how she came to the field, and how she got to where she is today through some serendipitous early life experiences. 

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Shauna Costello (00:01):

You're listening to operant innovations, a podcast brought to you by ABA technologies this month on thought leaders. We're back with Dr. Stephanie Peterson, as she answers the questions. Where do you see the field going, or where does she want to see the field go?

Shauna Costello (00:20):

Nope. And I think that that's a, a great spot to kind of end talking about your history. Um, because for me specifically, it was really cool to hear some of the nitty gritty details that, you know, I didn't know of.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (00:36):

Like the not so pretty stuff.

Shauna Costello (00:38):

Yeah. And I mean, I mean, that's, I mean, that's the real stuff. It's very easy. You know, when you get into reading article journals and seeing people at conferences, and it's very easy to put people up on this pedestal that, you know, they've just done all these great, great, great things, but we kind of always, we kind of forget that people do struggle to get there and it's not easy to get to where they got to. And so I it's, for me, it's very good knowing that because, um, sometimes I, I mean, even now I think about that.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (01:17):

Well, um, yeah, I mean, hearing you say that as we close this part of it, I guess what I would end with that, first of all, there's a lot more messiness that I didn't even tell you about. I could tell you some, some stories that'll make me choke up again, uh, even from my grad school days. But one of the things that I learned back in grad school, and I continue to relearn the lesson and I learned this from Dave, um, was that some of the darkest moments in your life turn out to be turning points that send you off in a direction that's in hindsight, when you look back as the best thing that ever happened to you. And so I had one of those in graduate school, certainly that issue I just described with Idaho state, that was a very, very dark moment in my career and in my personal life. Um, and yet it's what got me to Western, right? Like had that darkness not been there, I never would have landed here. So I try to remind myself that when I'm in a really challenging time, and maybe that's a good thing for people to think about in the middle of this pandemic and stuff I keep, and you and I were sort of chatting before we started this and talking about maybe there are some good things that'll come out of this.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (02:36):

And so I really do look at it as, um, you know, maybe 10 years from now, we'll look back on this time and say, this was a really dark time for us in terms of like, certainly for higher education. This is a very, very dark time. Um, but maybe it'll be a turning point, that sets us off on a course that's a better course that we would not have gotten on had this not happened. Um, so I'm trying to keep focused on that right now and saying to myself, I can't see what that is down the road. And so all I have to do is say, how do I get through this difficult time and try to make good decisions and keep moving forward. Right? So that we can be on a path that puts us into something positive in the end.

Shauna Costello (03:23):

And it's just, it's just, I mean, this is an old tried and true saying, but only you need to focus on the things that you can control.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (03:31):

Exactly. Yeah, that's another thing that I would always say control what's controllable and hope the rest doesn't do you in.

Shauna Costello (03:43):

That's the best way to put that. Yeah, no, that's perfect. Because then I keep reminding, you know, my friends and my family as well about that. Like we can only focus on, we can only control what we can control. Right. There's a lot of what ifs. There's a lot of this. There's a lot of that. It's good to know that they're there, but at the same time, these are the things we can control. Let's focus on those. Right. So, all right. So to the loaded question questions, kind of my, my, what I like to call my question with the slash in the middle, where do you either, where do you see the field going and or where do you want to see the field go?

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (04:31):

So I'm going to start answering that question with something that bothers me right now. Um, and it's a couple of things, but I think they're intertwined. Um, it bothers me that our basic scientists and our applied people are, I don't think fighting is the way, is the word to use, but are not getting along as well as we should. And yeah, and sometimes I sense a little bit of an elitist attitude from some people in the basic areas that, you know, there's this idea that unless you're a basic scientist, you really don't understand behavior analysis and the applied stuff's gotten so watered down that those people aren't very analytic in their thinking. And I try not to be offended by those statements and try to just understand, that it's a different perspective. Um, and that there are reasons that people have that perspective. So as an applied behavior analyst, I would like to just go on the record of saying that I very much value the basic science and our researchers in basic science.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (05:51):

It's very important that that work continues. And it's very important that our departments, um, keep having a home for basic scientists, like ever since I became chair, it's been one of my major concerns that we maintain our rat lab and that we maintain a strong presence in, in basic science in the department. And that is becoming more and more challenging to do because let's face it, the ABA stuff, the BCBA certification programs are what is paying the rent right now for a lot of us. So, um, so it's something that we have to be purposeful about to maintain. And at the same time, I would like those in the more basic and conceptual sciences to, uh, not feel so threatened by what's going on in the applied world. And instead of, you know, when I first went into this gig, uh, there were, uh, there was a lot of crying among behavior analysts of saying, why won't the world accept us.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (06:59):

And we wish we had a large, played a larger role in society, and that people respected our science and respected all the things that we could do to help make the world a better place. Well, we finally got that in one area and now everybody's mad that we've got it and that autism's taking over our field. And while I understand that and sometimes share that frustration, what I'd like to see us do for the future is to say, how do we take the awesome stuff that's happening in autism and spread that effect into other areas. If we're worried about autism taking over, rather than squashing autism, let's bring everything else up. Right. Um, so behavioral gerontology, like let's really focus on getting behavior analysts into our nursing homes and having our parents and grandparents getting good care. Right. Um, let's we have a lot to offer in the hospital in a lot of different ways, right?

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (08:10):

Like some of my colleagues have done great work in hand-washing and things like that, uh, safety checklists, so that surgeons don't sew you up with the scalpel or, um, grabbers, whatever they call the grabbers inside of you or a sponge or something. Right. I mean, like we have so much to offer in these other areas, exercise, uh, weight, right? There's there are so many things that we could be doing recycling, um, you know, climate change and green awareness that we have so much to offer in all these areas. So rather than spending our energy complaining about how autism is taking over, let's spend our energy thinking about how we bring our basic and applied scientists together to be as accepted in those areas as we are in the autism area now, and to really work closely with our basic scientists on when I have an issue that I can't solve in the applied world, I cannot figure out how to make this work.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (09:14):

And it's hard to study in the applied world because either there are ethical challenges or there are variables I can't control very well. Um, those are areas where our basic scientists can really, really help us. So there's such a strong need for, for both groups to remain strong and to work hand in hand together, to help solve all these problems. So if I had to say, what I want to see for a future direction is I want to see us get over this issue that we're having and really move forward together. And I think we can, we can do a lot of good in the world if we could do that.

Shauna Costello (09:57):

I fully agree with you. And just like you, I also sometimes get annoyed with the fact that all behavior analysts get, you know, get this umbrella, put over them and be like, okay, your autism. I mean, even at, even at our holiday, our family get together at the holidays this year. Um, and granted, these are, you know, some of my extended family members that probably only see me, especially when I lived across the country, very infrequently, they knew I got a new job, but, you know, they had just assumed it was still with developmental disabilities. And they're like, oh, how are the kids you're working with? I was like, what? And I didn't really dawn on me that they didn't know this. So they're, they're almost like what kids, cause I don't, I don't work with kids anymore. So yeah, it, it didn't even dawn on me.

Shauna Costello (10:52):

But, um, so sometimes yes, I, I get that way as well. But, um, even talking to some of the programs and stuff that I've been talking to, um, some programs that I've, you know, mostly the on campus ones as just to caveat that not so much the online ones are doing are trying to focus more on like the translational aspect of research as well. And I also think that this is my opinion. And we should probably talk about your opinion, but, um, I really like that because, um, it, cause we do have more people in the field and in the applied realm, but the applied realm needs the basic realm, just as much as the basic realm needs the applied realm. And sometimes, sometimes I say that with some of like the clinical stuff in like outside of like the academia run programs, um, you can start seeing like some plateaus you get into this very, this cycle of, okay, this is what we do. This is it's recycling what you've done. It's sometimes it can feel very, just the circle. That's just never ending. It's the same stuff over and over again. And I think hopefully training more of these trans, translational practitioners in the future could hopefully help that as well because we need the basic researchers to push our applied work forward.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (12:27):

Absolutely. And I think it's, it's on us as applied people to protect that. Um, I think that, so like when I was at Gonzaga, I remember being a first year on tenured professor and having my colleagues like going into a college meeting where we were going to talk about a difficult topic, where there was a lot of disagreements among the faculty and the college and, and my colleagues who were tenured in the department would say to me, just like, sit quietly in this meeting, let us do the talking. We'll represent your views, but you're not tenured yet and it's our job to protect you, right. Uh, it's our job to be the voice and say the things that, and we would talk a lot. So they had a pretty good sense of what my views were. So they were like, we can represent those views for you without you having to say it. So I think, like I thought about that a lot about how they took responsibility for being the leaders and standing up for the people who maybe couldn't express their views as easily because of their vulnerabilities. And I thought about that a lot in my career across a lot of different types of issues. And I think, um, those people who are in positions where they have a little more security and power and, and these days maybe that's true in the applied world is like, that's where the money is.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (13:58):

So that, so there is a little more security and power for applied work. Uh, then the onus is on us to recognize the areas that need support and to make sure we're standing up for those areas. And as I'm saying it, I feel like if there's a basic scientist listening to this, they might feel like I'm being pejorative and it's not at all my intention. So I hope it's not taken that way. Um, I don't mean to suggest that they're weak and, but, but they are vulnerable, right. Because, because it's a basic science. So my point is really just that it's on us to protect that area of our science. Um, and we need to be aware of that or we will lose it if we're not careful. Um, there was something else you said earlier that I was going to elaborate on, but I can't remember what it is now.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (14:57):

Cause I got wrapped up into that. Oh, I know what it was. Um, you were saying how you're thinking about doing your doctorate in business. And um, so the other thing that I was thinking as we were talking, that's also very important for our field is we have a real tendency to be insular and talk to ourselves a lot about the cool stuff we're doing and pat each other on the back for the cool stuff we're doing, which is like important to do. But, um, we also have to keep in mind that the rest of the world doesn't speak behavior analysis. And, um, we should be careful about being too self-congratulatory because we haven't been real successful so far in solving a lot of the world's big problems. And um, so I think we need to have some humility about what we think we know and how to apply it on broader scales and do a really good job of talking respectfully to people in other fields, respecting those other fields and not sort of talking down to them because we don't believe they're evidence-based or because, um, we think we know more than they do. I just sense a lot of that arrogance sometimes from our field. And I think we just need to, as a field, do a better job of reaching out and collaborating with other fields, trying to understand their perspectives and their science and how we can bring something to the table to supplement maybe some of those other more, more well accepted sciences and work together on to solve the problems.

Shauna Costello (16:48):

Yeah. And I agree it's the, I mean, with all of that, because behavior analysts, they have this unique role in science, we are way more of a natural science, but to the outside world, we're not, we're not this, we're not a natural science to the outside world we're more of like just social science, but I don't know if that can, I don't know if that's necessarily, should be considered a detriment. Like we have the skills of natural scientists with our research and people coming in with, you know, thinking that we're social scientists. So maybe we're a little bit, you know, just depending on how they perceive us. I think we just need to be aware of how people perceive our field. And so when we're approaching someone, it, we take that to consideration because we have all of the abilities and the research knowledge to help them make their practices evidence-based. Um, but then I learned this very quickly going into schools if you go in there all gung ho it's probably not gonna work out well for you.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (17:59):

Well, I think my colleague, Ron Van Houten makes that point really well when he's given some talks at ABAI where, um, he's talking about how to, how you lead change and things like that. Um, and one of the things that, the story that he relays is that, you know, he, he's having some pretty big influence on traffic safety because he's on the national traffic safety board now. Well, how did he get onto that board? Um, you know, he volunteered to do some work on a committee and then did good work on the committee and didn't tick people off, you know, uh, had some humility and said, I'll work hard on this and was willing to talk to people and share ideas. And because of his good work, he then got promoted if you will, to the chairperson of that committee, um, which then put them in a position to choose new committee members, right.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (18:53):

And then did some good work there and then got invited to be on the board. And now that he's on the board, he's actually in a position to help write policy. And so now you can get behavior analytic things happening on a broad scale because you're writing the policies and you don't do that by ticking people off and being arrogant. You do it by humbling yourself and saying, I got to start at the ground level, work my way up to that position and how I do that is to do good work, get along with people. Talk. I mean, like I'm not saying like give up all your morals and ethical standards, but what I'm saying is like, learn how to work with people and speak the language that they speak and bring the skills you have to bear without being too in your face. Like you gotta be a behavior analyst and you gotta do it this way. And if you don't know the word MO or you know, that term and that definition, then I'm not going to talk to you. You gotta work it in there and get yourself into a position. Like he is where they're writing policy. But you know, he's the lone behavior analyst up there. Right? So you gotta get out of your comfort zone and work with people across other fields and be able to talk about behavior analysis in a way that they can approach it. Right?

Shauna Costello (20:15):

Yes. And I was just reviewing a new course. That's coming out and there's a Skinner quote in it and I'm not going to quote this verbatim, put that out here right now. But it is saying that people don't need to know the contingencies are in place for them to work. Right. We have those skills. We can make behavior analysts without telling people I'm going to make you a behavior analyst. You're going to learn all of this stuff. We can do that. And we have, we have, we have that knowledge in that skillset to teach these skills, like you said, without being intrusive and overbearing.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (20:57):

And some people might view what you just said is like, then we're being manipulative because people don't have to be aware of the contingencies. But I would say like, think back to what we were talking about earlier about the things that I said, I was in a behavior analytic, special education program. I never even knew it because people didn't call it out. What did they do? But there were a lot of contingencies surrounding my behavior that kind of shaped me to be the behavior analyst I am today. I don't think that was manipulative. And I don't think it was manipulative because the people were creating a very nurturing environment to nurture along my skills and behavior. Right. So I don't think we need to think about that as being manipulative, but if we create these nurturing environments that are positively reinforcing and enjoyable to be in and provide the supports, prompts, stimulus cues, et cetera, that people need in order to be successful.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (21:54):

And then when they are successful, you know, allowing them to experience the reinforcement of that success is what I'm talking about. And that might mean, for example, I have a student who is, has an undergrad. Who's been in our practicum now for two years. And I really wanted her to go into a graduate program in behavior analysis, but she wants to go into a graduate program in clinical psychology, which could also be behavioral analytic, but I wanted her in our behavior analysis program, but you know what? My job is not about what I want. My job is about, she wants to go into clinical psychology. So it's my job to create a nurturing environment that allows her to go do what it is she wants to do, right. And provide her with the skills and to go do what she wants to do and be the best she can be as a clinical psychologist. And that is something that's a huge reinforcer for me to see her go off and do that, even though I wish it was in our program. But, um,

Shauna Costello (22:54):

Well, I mean, when I can say to the skills that Western's undergrad program, I am assuming this because I've only been in that undergrad program is very different than other school of psychology undergraduate programs. Um, there's a lot of skills and you can think about also that she's going to be taking those skills. She learned from Western's undergrad program and the practicum sites and her opportunities into the clinical psychology realm, which behavior analysis still hasn't fully infiltrated. The word, the word that I keep saying.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (23:35):

Yeah, similarly I had an undergrad who was a premed and, um, he's not sure if he wants to do like pediatrics, but ultimately he was talking about doing psychiatry. And, uh, and so he worked on my team for like two years, working with clients who are, some of whom are developmental disabled, some of whom are mentally ill and some who have both, um, you know, and he got kind of discouraged sometimes about how medicated some of our clients are. And he got a little frustrated with some of the psychiatrists who were, um, you know, serving as these individual psychiatrists and putting them on all these medications. And he said to me, at one point, I don't know if that's what I want to do, you know? And I said to him, that's all the more reason you need to go into this field because you could be the difference. You know, you could be the one who goes in and is this amazing psychiatrist that helps developmentally disabled populations and gets them off their medications. And now you have this behavior analytic background. So you'll be able to work really well with, with a behavior analyst to solve this issue, you know? And so I'm really excited. He just, he just emailed me the other day saying he got into medical school and he's going to start now.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (24:59):

So that's another great example of how, if we can teach people about behavior analyst and support them and to move and in moving into these other areas, that's another great way that we can impact our society and get behavior analysis happening across disciplines.

Shauna Costello (25:16):

Yes. Yup. Fully, fully agree with you. And yeah, that's, I mean, it's just exciting to think about that. There's so many different opportunities and as much as I feel a little guilty for, sometimes I feel like I'm turning my back on the field. I mean, I know I'm not, I'm not gonna stop being a behavior analyst. Um, that is where my heart is, but I'm how I'm trying to tell myself, I'm making my focus on my focus is just different. So I need to learn about that. I need to learn all, you know, I need to learn the language. I need to learn all the philosophy, the theory, their practices, because I can't make their practices. I can't change their practices unless I know what they are.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (26:10):

Yeah, and you'll, you'll get this, have a great opportunity to learn that and then look for the points of convergence, right? Um, like, we may have think about things the same way, but we call it something else. For example, a hundred percent, you know? So like, look for those points of convergence and then pick up those and you're off and running from there, like try not to focus on the things that are different and where we disagree. We're never going to get anywhere if you do that.

Shauna Costello (26:36):

Focus on the things that are the same, and that's what I'm really excited about because of my current job, I'm starting to see a lot of those, a lot of those similarities, I do a lot of data analytics right now. Um, and I'm trying to learn more because I realized that's not an area that I learned before outside of, you know, with behavior. But, um, so that's been, it's just been so much fun and like seeing where behavior analysis is in other fields already, without even being in those fields yet is really cool. So is there anything else that you want to make sure you cover about where the field is going or where you'd like to see it go or even yourself?

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (27:27):

No, I think we've pretty well covered it. I mean, talked about myself for a long time, which is kind of embarrassing.

Shauna Costello (27:33):

No, it's really funny. You would not believe how often I, how often I get, Oh, I don't think I can talk about myself for two hours. I'm like, oh, you do.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (27:44):

Everybody can talk about themselves for two hours.

Shauna Costello (27:45):

Thank you so much.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (27:48):

Oh, you're welcome.

Shauna Costello (27:49):

I've learned a ton and yes, you are a thought leader to me. And, um, I appreciate it. And it's great to hear that. Yeah, everybody has their I'm quoting here, their luck, you know what I mean? The lucky stuff. Um, and it's easy to see the good stuff in someone's past. So it's, I always like pointing out that it is hard to get where people are. And it's nice to hear, you know, from, I hate to refer to as a horse, but from the horses mouth, the actual struggle that people go through to get there, because we're all gonna go through. We're all gonna go through that. It's not easy. So thank you so much.

Dr. Stephanie Peterson (28:39):

Oh, thank you. This, it was an honor that you asked me to do this and, um, hopefully I didn't say anything too embarrassing or anything.

Shauna Costello (28:49):

I was pretty, I was pretty into it the whole time. So thank you for listening to operant innovations. And as always, if you have questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions, please feel free to reach out to us at


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