Megan A. Smith
Megan A. Smith, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Rhode Island College
LIFE INSIDE THE LAB
What is your work/research topic? My research focuses on human learning and memory. I am particularly passionate about applying what we know about learning and memory to educational settings. My research program focuses on retrieval-based learning strategies, and the way activities promoting retrieval can improve meaningful learning in the classroom. We know from decades of research that bringing information to mind (like you do when you take a test or explain something to someone else) is a really powerful way to promote learning. In my lab, I ask empirical questions such as: What retrieval practice formats promote student learning? What retrieval practice activities work well for different types of learners? And, why does retrieval increase learning?
Megan A. Smith is an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College. Follow Megan on Twitter @DrSmithRIC.
What does your average day look like? My average day involves a lot of science but also a lot of teaching. I work at a relatively smaller school that is focused on quality teaching as well as integrating research in the classroom. So, my teaching load is a little bit heavier than you might see at a highly research-focused institution. As a professor at Rhode Island College, I teach at 3 classes per semester, though I sometimes take on extra classes. So, much of my day I am in the classroom. This is great for me because I absolutely love teaching and my science is all about how students learn! I get to integrate my science and my teaching. For example, one of the classes I teach is an upper-level research methods class in cognition and experimental psychology. In this class, I help the students conduct experiments on learning in the classroom, and we use classroom lab time to analyze the data and write a full research report. As their final project, I help the students design their own studies and write a proposal for future research they might conduct. When I’m not in the classroom, I spend a lot of time writing manuscripts, designing experiments, creating science-based learning materials that are free for the public and writing about science on The Learning Scientists (www.learningscientists.org).
What are some of the highlights of your career right now? My career is still young. But, so far the highlight of my career was when I figured out how to spread the science of learning to others. I got into research in cognition because of my passion for education. When I started in a learning research lab at Purdue University, my plan was to go into School Psychology and try to work in policy. I wanted to have some role in bridging the gap between the research in psychology and the actual day-to-day activities in education. However, it wasn’t really clear how I was going to achieve these goals, and I loved the research I was doing. With encouragement from my mentor, I ultimately decided to pursue my career in cognition and applied to PhD programs focused on the application of cognition to education.
Now, Fast forward to my job as an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College. I started to look back and wonder if I had abandoned my goals to make a real difference. I knew publishing research with prescriptions for education really wasn’t going to make a difference. I ended up trying to design a Twitter assignment to help my students learn how to translate science into bite-size pieces for people outside of the field. On Twitter, I revived an old friendship with a colleague, Yana Weinstein, and we started our Learning Scientists project. We now are in contact with a number of teachers around the globe, and are creating free resources based on science for students. We also run a blog on the website, where we translate research as well as bring teachers in to write about research in the classroom and classroom challenges.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF LAB
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Gurnee, IL, a suburban neighborhood about 45 minutes north of Chicago, right near Lake Michigan.
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? At some point as a child, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I really loved putting together logical arguments and thinking. I chose psychology as a major intending to go pre-law and pick up a minor that would make a good pre-law package with psychology after doing more research. When I started thinking about law more practically, I realized my interests were mostly in criminal law. Yet I was worried that I had too much empathy and was too gullible to be a prosecutor or defense attorney. So, during my freshman year I started thinking about ways to apply logical arguments in other ways using my psychology major. Soon after that I joined a research lab.
What do you do to relax outside of lab? Aside from engaging with my hobbies, I like to take a hot bubble bath and read a novel. Once a year, some of my female academic friends from graduate school and I get together for our annual “Lady Wine Tour.” We pick a spot, rent a big house through AirBNB, hire a driver, and plot out a handful of wineries to visit. We pack lots of cheese and other snacks to enjoy between the wineries, and this gives us time to catch up and chat. For that weekend, none of us work. It’s really nice to chat with other female academics and taste some fantastic wine!
Do you have any pets? Two kitties, Elinore and Teddy. I adopted them both while I was in graduate school.
Do you have any fun hobbies? I love to knit and crochet. My fiancé and I also love to play board games and do puzzles, and we love to get out and go camping and hiking when we can.
How did your family develop alongside your career? My family is only just getting started. After graduate school, I took a tenure-track job at Utah State University Eastern. In that tiny town, Price, UT, of only 10,000 people, I ended up meeting the man who is now my fiancé. He had randomly moved to work in the admissions office for USU Eastern. When I received my job offer to work for Rhode Island College (my dream job), I was really fortunate that he was so supportive. He quit his job and moved with me across the country to Rhode Island. He now works for Brown University doing admissions for the Summer at Brown programs.
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? My Mom made it possible for me to become a scientist. She raised my younger sister and I to believe we could be anything. I mean, literally, anything – when I was 5 years old I announced that I was going to play football for the Chicago Bears… and my mom went along with it and never questioned it. I don’t know when it was that I figured out this was neither possible nor a good idea, but it certainly wasn’t my mom who said “girls don’t do that.” She somehow shielded us from statements like “girls aren’t good at math” or “girls should do x.” I honestly don’t know how she did it… but I really did grow up thinking the sky was the limit. I don’t think it is at all a coincidence that I have a PhD and a research career and my sister holds an honors neuroscience degree and is working towards her Medical Degree.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? My mom was so supportive when I was in graduate school. For some reason, people would always ask my mother if my sister and I were settling down with anyone, or if my mom was expecting any grandchildren. My mother always replied, very enthusiastically, “I don’t have any grandchildren, I have children with grand plans.” At the time, I thought it was kind of embarrassing. But looking back I realize how important and special it was that I always had my mom’s support 110%.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? We need role models! It is much easier to see yourself in a role if you have a role model who is more similar to you. So, certainly, men can serve as role models for women in STEM. However, being able to see other women in your field is important, too. I remember when I was in graduate school, all of the professors in my program were male. (There was one female, but she left and then the department hired two more white males…) At one point, I asked one of my (male) professors about work/life balance and a couple of other questions about women in STEM. He said these were important questions, and I should probably talk to one of the female professors in another program. I know he meant very well, but it was discouraging to have to go into a different program to find someone like me to answer the questions I had. Of course, with all male faculty in my program, I had no other choice!
What is your favorite desk snack? I am obsessed with popcorn.
What was your favorite subject in high school? I always loved Math
What color socks are you wearing? White gym socks. I plan to go for a nice walk on our walking path after finishing these questions!