Interview conducted by Sorah Stein
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I’d like to say that it was a well-researched decision but it was just luck. I was in undergraduate pilot training so I thought that it didn’t matter what I selected as a major. My dad was an engineer so he was hoping I would stay in math or engineering. I studied them a bit but felt out of place with a pocket protector and slide rule roaming around campus. As luck would have it, I ended up in Hank Pennypacker’s classes at UF during a very exciting time in our field.
I really enjoyed precision teaching and figured that if things worked out, I might become a professor of psychology. Hank introduced us to the works of folks like Ivan Pavlov, Ogden Lindsley and BF Skinner. Then he told us about things like the “Worm Runner’s Digest,” which was loosely built around the idea that you could get an earthworm to crawl across a petri dish if you just understood operant conditioning. He encouraged us to look for applications of our science wherever we chose to work. I ended up doing some work at a place that dealt with neurodevelopmental disorders. To use a fishing analogy, I was hooked.
What do you think is your most important accomplishment?
Getting a child with Autism to communicate with signs, symbols or words when they previously used “meltdowns.” When I started my ABA work, these kids (and adults) were often locked away in facilities called state hospitals. In truth, they were more like warehouses. Ivar Lovaas was starting his work at UCLA and many of us were skeptical. Over time, I came to understand the power of early intensive types of behavioral intervention. I am happy that the company I created gives opportunities to these kids (and also lots of jobs to talented ABA professionals).
What do you think the field should be doing more?
I was an early advocate of some type of certification or licensing for behavior analysts.
I am pleased that it is growing and evolving. I think we have to continue to be vigilant to guard against people claiming they know or practice our science when they do not. One of the reasons I stay committed to the mission of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies is that it gives me a platform to do two important things. First, I think we can serve as a much needed filter. When new claims are made or new issues emerge, we have some amazing people to help us sort through what is real and what is hype. Keep in mind that we are not bound by the politics of a University nor are we driven by any profit motivation. All of these people (myslef included) volunteer their time. If you are a parent of a child or adult with special needs who is looking for help, I think we owe it to you to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” Second, I hope that we can do more to serve as a catalyst for good ideas and programs. There are so many.
What is your favorite thing about behavior analysis?
I appreciate the scientific approach to helping. From my early days in Gainesville to now, I have found the majority of my colleagues aligned in that way. In the rare instance that they are not, I choose to move on.
What advice do you have for folks just entering behavior analysis?
Find good mentors and spend less and less time with people that drag you down. Our field thrives on diversity; embrace it. If you read our recent book, “Behavioral Science; Tales of Inspiration, Discovery and Service,” you will see what I mean. (PS. In case you don’t already know, Sorah donated a ton of time to line editing that book for us).
I also like the Michael Dell approach to business success and it has served me well: “never be the smartest person in the room.”
Among my many job duties, that dictum is by far the easiest to follow.