Thought Leaders 025 | Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales | Part 1

This month on Thought Leaders, we are joined by Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales as she tells us how her familial history brought her to the field and how her religion is important and not mutually exclusive from the science of behavior. Shahla talks about her phenomenal history and how it has brought her to a multi-disciplinary team. 


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Shauna Costello (00:00):

You're listening to Operant Innovations, a podcast brought to you by ABA Technologies. One thing I did want to get some clarification on from you, because I've heard it pronounced a few different ways... How do you pronounce your name?

Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales (00:20):

[Laughing] That might be a good place to start. First of all, I have a way of pronouncing all of my names, and I think people linguistically, from all those different places, have different ways of saying it. I grew up here, so I say it with my mouth in a particular way, but I say Shahla for my first name and then my last name is hyphenated. It's Ala'i-Rosales. My last name's complicated because of both ethnicity, nationality, languages, and then my varied and changing marital status. I say Ala'i-Rosales, and I don't think native speakers of Farsi or Spanish would say them that way, but that's me: Shahla Ala'i-Rosales.

Shauna Costello (01:12):

I want to make sure that I'm always pronouncing someone's name how they prefer.

Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales (01:18):

Which is great and complicated, especially [Laughing] with someone with my name and especially someone who lives kind of between cultures. It gets even more complicated than if I was one thing or the other thing.

Shauna Costello (01:39):

Thank you so much for talking with me today and I'm going to pass it over to you because I've read a lot of your stuff. I've seen you present and I've heard so much about you from colleagues. The first question is, what is your story and how did you get to where you are today?

Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales (02:07):

Well, I think that's an interesting question, [Laughing] and I think depending on the context, the audience and the purpose, I would probably tell my story very differently. I'm thinking about right now in terms of speaking to my colleagues, speaking to maybe a younger generation of behavior analysts. Also speaking to my applied behavior analyst colleagues, who have not always been part of the discipline, have not always felt comfortable being who they are in our professional communities. I am actually going to start out with a few things to open up the boundaries of comfort. Let me start with this one: I pray every day. It's not something people in behavior analytic circles are comfortable saying and I have had varying degrees of comfort about who I am, but I think that's a good place to start my story. I have an increasingly growing spiritual life, and I don't see that in opposition with the rest of my life, especially as a scientist and especially as an applied scientist. I think I see that as part of a whole, but it is a very important part of how I see myself and my identity. I think it propels me in many different directions. I think it propels me in terms of always thinking about the meaning of my science and my actions and my practice and my interactions. It definitely doesn't mean I'm any kind of really great human being. I struggle like all the rest of us, as a human, and see that as part of why we're here. To learn, to develop our souls, to learn to develop those qualities which will not only help us individually, but help our civilization, our collective humanity, grow and develop. Part of my story is that I come from generations of people that felt that way, and who did things like go out in the middle of the night and collect people who'd been murdered for their identity, for their faith, and helped them get good burials. That was my great-grandmother and her stories of people who went in looking for not only reform and improvement at the individual interaction level, but changes in structural levels. Both my father and my grandfather were in public service, in public health and in silos, which are agricultural areas, but both of them found ways to embed community change. I heard about interventions at a really early age where people went in and collaboratively worked in the community to produce changes that were healthy and good for the whole community. I had that context coming into the world as well on my mother's side. They were abolitionists and she was part of that and I'm mixed. I'm Middle Eastern and Anglo. I came into the world that way. I read Walden Two when I was in high school and really, really liked it. I love the idea of experimentally looking at community designs and finding better ways for human beings to live in a way that was satisfying in terms of art and science and music and literature. I love that part of intellectual and creative curiosity development. I thought that was quite beautiful, but also the idea that you would intentionally reflect upon how you were organizing yourselves as a society and as individuals, and then make mindful changes [Laughing] as you were going along. I really loved that and then I just completely lucked out. I had worked in Head Start programs in high school, and when I went to college, I started working in the early childhood programs. I was an early child and family major and worked with some phenomenal early childhood educators. Keep in mind, I was born in 1960, so I also spent time going to sit-ins with my parents and all kinds of things like that. They were activists in the community and 60 years ago, a Middle Eastern man who looked like my father and a white woman who looked like my mother, it wasn't an easy road for them in many different ways. Partly out in the world and how the world responded to them and how they responded to us. Things have changed a lot in that way, but also even just learning to respond to each other. Eastern and Western cultures are very different and my mom was also an artist, my father was an engineer. Lots of different background stuff. Part of the reason I went into child and family was to try to understand all that and there had been, in my upbringing, a real emphasis on the importance of education. I'd read Walden Two and kind of put it aside. It was still the late seventies, so there was still a lot of "free to be you, peace and love" going on, especially in Carbondale, which was sort of a hippie den. Little did I know it had also been sort of this hot spot for behavior analysis. I had no idea. I walked in and I started working in early childhood, and then a practicum at Head Start and it turns out the place was swarming with behavior analysts. [Laughing]. John Lutzker was there, Sandra Lutzker... I had to work through school and I actually got a job as her secretary in the university daycare. She was in this sort of big closet and I was her secretary, so I was in there with her. It was a work study program. I got to sit in a closet with Sandra Lutzker and hear her narrate how she was going about in just this beautifully sensitive, progressive way, working with the early childhood educators in the program and she's the one who said, "Never go in and just change everything. See what everybody's doing, appreciate the beauty of what they're doing, and then shape together." Really good early career advice. I didn't always take it because I tend to also [Laughing] just jump in sometimes. She was great. In the same building as the University daycare was the University Head Start. Project 12 Ways was very involved in the program, which was John Lutzker's program. One of probably the most successful programs in the world, I believe, is the data that is out there. In terms of reducing recidivism in parents who have neglected or abused their children, it's a beautiful program. There's also Project Safe Care and there's a national program out of Georgia Tech or Georgia Institute of Technology. I moved into the world of John and Sandra Lutzker basically, which I was so fortunate. Brandon Green was there, actually I think even Richard Fox was still there, but I was a little undergraduate, so I had no clue about who all these people were, what they were doing. I just was like, "Wow, this is cool. This is like that book I read," [Laughing], and they love children. A lot of them were from the University of Kansas and there was this big, absolute heart part in everything they did. It appealed to me from my own personal belief system. I progressed, I worked there, I made a lot of friends who were also in the behavior analysis program and they said go to Kansas. I applied to Kansas and went to Kansas and loved it. It was a really interesting time to be at Kansas because there was definitely this peak. I think of the formation of JABA and all the grants and everything going on. Sometimes I think it was a little bit like the faculty were in grandparent mode which sort of has its advantages. They weren't all publishing like crazy. They were reflecting a lot and they were integrating a lot with some new faculty at the time too, so there were a lot of different things going on, but there were a lot of faculty and my advisors luckily felt strongly that a diversity of deep experience was important. I was there for a long time. I'm old, so this is a long story. [Laughing].

Shauna Costello (13:06):

No. Not at all. This is great.

Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales (13:06):

I was at Kansas and I was still centered and focused on young children and families. It has pretty consistently been the area that I've been most interested in. I like young children and I love working in systems and families. I got my masters degree and then I continued on with my PhD. During that time I was a lab supervisor in one of the University daycares in a program that Dr. Etzel ran for children with learning disabilities. Eventually we started the early childhood Autism program, which had started very briefly as a replication of the UCLA project, but it was at the time when there were a lot of shifts in terms of how intervention took place, if a verses was used or not. We were not in that position and then I think UCLA was also making a lot of decisions about who would be a replication site and who would not. For a variety of reasons, we collaborated and we had some cross pollination, but we were fairly committed to not using a versus. Because Dr. Sheldon and Dr. Sherman worked in the community with adults, we also had this unique lifespan way of looking at it and in terms of how we were implementing the very early intervention and then how what we were doing with adults informed where we placed emphasis and how we were looking at the collaboration and communication with the families in the community. It was a really magical time of everything coming together. I learned so much. I feel like I was this lump of coal and I got super lucky that I was in this phenomenal environment which just got me close to a diamond. I was just really lucky. [Laughing]

Shauna Costello (15:37):

I can a hundred percent relate to that. I completely understand what you're describing right now. It just also blows my mind that somebody else feels like that because it's not always talked about.

Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales (15:51):

Yeah. It's wonderful to know and I think it also helps us understand the power of really good models and teachers. Just being able to be under those conditions, I learned so much about how to teach other people. I still am learning though that it's hard and we have new world conditions about that. I've been telling all my professional things. There were lots of important personal things happening during those periods. At Kansas I met Jesus and we got married and we came here to UNT together and we had children. We still work together, although we're no longer married, but we were in a lab together. He has actually been just another phenomenal teacher and source of influence in especially conceptualizations of behavior and behavior change. Also in terms of technical timing, looking at movement cycles, looking at the shaping process, all those kinds of things. Both really macro and micro things and I hope I express my gratitude for my teachers.I do think starting with probably my first teacher way back in high school when I was at the Headstart program. Ms. Juliette Whittaker was very important in terms of how you combine responsibility and effectiveness, how those are important when you're working with young children and families, but also the importance of joy in art. She was an artist and an educator and just incredible. I think about what that brought in, and then I look at the Lutzkers, John, Sandra, absolutely, and their influence in how I approached applied research. Going to KU, there were so many people, but my main advisors were Dr. Barbara Etzel, whose area was stimulus control. She was also one of the authors on the rebuttal article of Rekers and Lovaas right after the article came out. She had always been a champion for issues and practice around gender and gender equality. The way we looked at how we became involved in social environments for people and also just all the stimulus control is, I think, essential to our science. I was so lucky to work with Dr. Jan Sheldon and Jim Sherman and Jan is also an attorney. Jim did the first studies in generalized limitation in the field. Being part of their lab and working on their projects, I can't even begin to say the amount I learned in terms of how to combine heart and science and really deep compassion for the people you're working with. Amazing models and mentors and then of course coming here, continuing working with Jesus, who had been a senior student when we were in graduate school. Joel Greenspoon was here who did some of the early work in verbal behavior and we ran a lab together when I first came here. He had been retired, he was emeritus, and then of course Janet Ellis and Sigrid Glenn. All along the way I kept stumbling into these phenomenal situations, both personally and professionally. Even the communities where I have lab sites, have been really astounding. I worked with Easterseals, North Texas. We had a beautiful project and the group, all teachers and wonderful people. I now work with the Martin Luther King Center and it's very similar. We have a phenomenal group of people all doing beautiful work and working on combining heart and science, that process.

Shauna Costello (20:42):

I've been looking more and more into what's going on in your program because we actually have a graduate of the program. I was supervising him for a while and so it's been so cool just to learn from him as well and to be able to go and do some more research. You talk about your mentors and your teachers and I think it's really neat to see, along with your mentors and teachers where, your backstory and your family history and how, to me, it seems as though it's come full circle. You've become this educator. You're out there advocating all of the time. You're out there training, you're out there being, from what I've heard, this wonderful mentor and teacher. It seems like a lot of things have come full circle.

Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales (21:50):

Yeah. One thing I think I become increasingly aware of is this idea of coherence. I don't always have it, but I have found that I think my skills and knowledge grow deeper the more I'm searching for the meta and coherence. I also think about the particular work I do, the combination of being in the field, actually doing something. We learn about behavior change by changing behavior. That's like our jam [Laughing]. Doing that, but also being in a community of practice that says, "Yes, do that, but do it with, not at. Don't use people and be part of the betterment of everyone." It's a heart and science meld, but also in the process of doing that, teaches other people to do that. Then you have layers of expertise in your community of practice from the novice to like Yoda, [Laughing], and everything in between. What happens is if you have all three of those things going on at the same time, I think you get more generative behavior and you also get more synthesis and movement. I think it's an exponential process. I want to make sure I circle back because I started with praying every day [Laughing] and then I kind of wandered for a while and I'm sorry if it was too wandering. What I want to circle back to is I definitely think there have been some themes and some of the themes have to do with having a higher purpose, but they also have to do with this process of trying to improve and transform ourselves and help be part of transformation for the world. I obviously ask for help from God, but I also think about asking for help in general from one another and how you try to learn from everything that happens, even when you stumble, even when you do horrible things, even when you realize, "Oh, what I thought was good wasn't good." [Laughing] There are so many things like that, but I think that the process of continuing to try to do things for a higher purpose has been an ongoing theme. I feel really blessed for my parents, my grandparents and also all of the teachers that I've had or who have been able to put up with me or that I've been attracted to. I feel really lucky.

Shauna Costello (24:52):

I'm really happy that you brought that up because you are actually our second this year who has brought up their beliefs and their religion and I'm very happy for it. One thing that I didn't get to ask Dr. Denise Ross about when she brought it up and I would love to ask you about and feel free to answer or not. I'm always interested because I know there are plenty of people who have these belief systems that may feel as though they do not mesh with science or science in general. How did you make sure that you can include everything together? Did you have any hardships trying to do that?

Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales (25:47):

I don't think I had hardships trying to do that. I think I have hardships trying to communicate to my colleagues from the dominant culture. If you're not from the dominant culture, you've heard about code switching, especially early on in my career. I learned right away that you would be punished for saying anything about the G word and punished as an intellectual drilling into you. When you're 19, I didn't have the intellectual capacity to come back and say, "Well, let me tell you about the dominant culture." I want to say it now because I have some more capacity from when I was 19. I just felt intellectually bruised and marginalized, but here's what I'll say: Especially scholars outside of the field of behavior analysis, I think one thing that has happened is there's this increased understanding about what's called positionality and the importance of what they call enunciating positionality. Talking about your identity, your lived experiences, your conditioning history, talking about all those things and factoring them into how we look at our ways of knowing our production of knowledge and our knowledge base. What I would say and what other people are saying, I've learned this from my colleagues, I work in an interdisciplinary collective right now. A lot of what I'm saying I've learned and we've written about within that collective. If everybody is from one group, a dominant group, the verbal behavior, their stimulus controls, their reinforcer controls are all so fixed and alike that when they begin to think that is all truth and that objectivity is viewed through that one lens, when you begin to break that up, you start forming a meta understanding of objectivity and truth, but it requires different positionality, different perspectives. I believe and I understand why, because I'v also read Skinner deeply and I think deeply and I understand the movement away from religion because some really horrible things have happened in the name of religion. Some really horrible things have happened in the name of science too. Sorry, Hiroshima was not cool. It was very, very bad in fact. There's been a lot of suffering. I don't even want to give them credit, but the people who performed experiments on women without anesthesia to learn things to help us have better reproduction. There's a lot of bad in everything, but there's also a lot of good. I get why people are so anti spirituality or religion and I also think we have this thing where we're a very new science and things that are hard to measure or are not part of our kind of dominant way of thinking and talking tend to freak us out a little bit. We tend to think maybe one data path, doing something orderly in a reversal design, is more important than a bunch of crazy data paths [Laughing] with no experimental control, but that's the science of discovery. All the seeming chaos is where we start looking for patterns, where we start producing it. You can't stay in the safe zone because most of what's important to us isn't in the safe zone. I think just the fact that you had two people who brought up God means that maybe there are some other voices that if they've been in the group but not spoken now feel more comfortable or they're learning ways to speak about things that are so foreign to other people. We often talk about how we don't deal with emotions or spirituality. Not all behavior analysts say that, but some do. I think we're really comfortable talking about fear and aggression, but not so much love and tenderness. I think that it's one of the things I'm excited about the future, because we're a young science. We are crude and we are limited in our lenses and perspectives, but it's a new science. This is a new part of the evolution of our species. There is still a lot to do. [Laughing]

Shauna Costello (31:16):

I love your language because I've never heard it talked about like that.

Dr. Shahla Ala'i-Rosales (31:21):

I'm a radical behaviorist. I'm a determinist. I think there are lawful patterns in the universe and that science and our ability as humans to engage in science, to engage in reflection, is part of our soul. I think soul stuff is nonmaterial things; curiosity, imagination, pattern seeking. I think some of those things are part of our soul stuff and I don't have a problem reconciling it because I can go to a meta and say, "You know what? There's another bigger organizing thing than just the arrogance of you thinking the only way to look at it is the way you are looking at it." It's one of the problems I have with some of the not quite evolved behavior in our field. The rigidity in looking and being able to hold different ideas at the same time. Being able to not rip someone apart because they said, "Mind". [Laughing] I love Phil Hineline when we speak of knowing that instead of ripping someone apart, try to get at what they're trying to communicate. I do think it is an advantage I have and that people from mixed cultures, races, ethnicities, oftentimes develop. I had to understand both of my people and then I married into another group, so I had to work across languages, I had to work across cultural practices, I had to develop perspective taking skills and not think just because one person says agua, another person says aab and another person says water that you must only say water. There are other words for that and they're tacking similar things, but sometimes different things because it turns out there's agua dulce. There are different kinds of water and we all have different ways of talking about that. I think being able to sway a little bit in terms of concepts and in terms of seeing higher organizing conceptualizations is part of us developing and part of us being a young science. Part of the way we know we have a discipline is being firm about the boundaries because you need to test, "Hey, is this a discipline? Is it going to work or not?" At the same time, you can't be so rigid that you don't grow with the rest of the world. There are amazing things happening in other disciplines that we also want to dance with, merge with, be a part of, go in lines together. There are a whole lot of ways to look at it, but you have to have some behavioral flexibility to do that. It is hard because you don't want to lose this beautiful thing because it's a science of human behavior that's gorgeous. It's incredible. At the same time, you don't want to become so rigid and narrow that it just collapses because you've confined it or restricted it.

Shauna Costello (34:51):

Thank you for listening to this episode of Thought Leaders. Come back next month as we answer the questions: Where do you see the field going and or where would you like to see the field go? As always, if you have questions, comments, feedback or suggestions, please feel free to reach out to us at


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