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Tom Lyon: a teacher twice honored

Professor receives teaching and mentoring awards

by Maria Iacobo

Professor Tom Lyon has been busy, accepting accolades across the USC campus for his work as a teacher and mentor.

At a ceremony on April 8 held at the USC Gould School of Law, where Lyon holds the Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Chair in Law and Psychology, Dean Robert K. Rasmussen presented him with the William A. Rutter Distinguished Teaching Award.

The annual honor, which carries a cash award, was established by Rutter ’55, founder of The Rutter Group, a legal publishing company.

“Bill was so committed to exemplary teaching that he established the Rutter Teaching Award not only here at his alma mater, but also at Berkeley, UCLA and UC Davis,” Rasmussen said.

A committee comprised of faculty and students considered nominations by students.

“The committee cited numerous reasons that made Tom the unanimous choice,” Rasmussen said. “Tom consistently impresses his students at how dedicated he is to be the most effective teacher he can. Students appreciate how he introduces new teaching techniques and new pedagogical methods to improve clarity and increase interaction.”

Rasmussen noted that in his seven years at USC Gould, he has read every teacher evaluation and said it was “hard to find anyone with the consistently good scores” found in Lyon’s evaluations.

“I really love teaching so I’m really touched to receive this award,” said Lyon, who also has an appointment at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, when accepting the award.

Convocation comes calling

Dean Robert K. Rasmussen, Tom Lyon and Sally Rutter

Dean Robert K. Rasmussen, Tom Lyon and Sally Rutter

The same day, at USC’s 33rd Academic Honors Convocation, Lyon was given the Provost’s Mentoring Award by Elizabeth Garrett, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. The award recognizes the value of helping students and younger faculty succeed in their own research and professional development.

“I just do what I do because I enjoy doing it, and it helps me get my work done,” Lyon said. “You find good students, you work with them and give them more and more responsibility because as independent workers they can do great things — and I can get more work done. It’s sort of a Machiavellian way of thinking about it.

“But then to hear that this is special really strikes me as odd because I would think everyone would want to work,” he explained. “When I come into the office, there’s lots of people here and lots of interaction. It just makes work so much more enjoyable when I work with more students.”

Lyon employs a team of undergraduates and graduates for his extensive research relating to the testimony of children in cases involving abuse and domestic violence. Students working with Lyon develop the research skills to launch their own professional careers.

Under Lyon’s tutelage this year are three graduate students (two psychology majors; one Master of Social Work student), one post-doctorate and 17 undergraduates majoring in psychology and serving as research assistants.

And more students look to work with Lyon every year.

“Tom is an extraordinary mentor and role model for students and scholars across campus,” Rasmussen said. “His generosity and commitment to these individuals is impressive.”

For the children

After earning his law degree at Harvard University, Lyon worked as an attorney in Los Angeles County’s Division of Children’s Services before earning his PhD in developmental psychology at Stanford University.

In the last 10 years, he has been awarded nearly $4 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop and test protocols to interview maltreated children about their abuse.

Lyon has already identified a protocol that encourages children to reveal truthful information without increasing the risks of suggestibility or influence. Two state agencies that train forensic interviewers and law enforcement have adopted the protocol.

Given that his work involves reviewing hundreds of interviews with children and hundreds of court transcripts, Lyon said there was “no way” he’d be able to manage this much data without a team of people with whom he could collaborate.

But, he said, where he may stand apart from other researchers is the type of work he gives his assistants.

“I probably could get away with giving research assistants boring work,” Lyon said. “When I was in grad school, I saw college students working for other grad students and they’d often be given nothing but data entry — which is a bunch of numbers you’re typing into the computer. I remember thinking, ‘If I had ever volunteered as a research assistant as an undergrad, there’s no way I would have gotten interested in psychology. That’s the most boring work possible.’

“I think the only way [to inspire] undergraduates to become psychologists is to make sure that if you do give them menial work, you let them know what it is they’re doing, and you give them opportunities for doing more responsible work.

“Maybe that’s one of the reasons we have a very successful lab,” he added. “We start undergrads out with transcription or data entry — which allows them to get to know what the work is we’re doing — but very quickly we find other things for them to do. We move them into jobs where they interview children, we offer them opportunities to get undergraduate awards for independent projects.”

A few years ago, Lyon began offering research positions to freshmen — something fairly unusual in universities.

“What’s amazing to me is how capable these 19-year-olds are of doing the work that they often don’t do until graduate school,” he said.

A great resource

Lyon’s commitment to his students is impressive. One former post-doctorate student noted that Lyon “clearly cared about my success as a productive scholar. Throughout my time at USC, Tom provided me opportunities to present papers at several conferences, publish our research in assorted journals and [connect] with colleagues sharing my interests.”

A recent undergraduate wrote, “I had the privilege of working directly under Dr. Lyon’s mentorship when he suggested that I apply for a Student Opportunities for Academic Research grant [which I won] to do my own research on something relevant to the studies that were conducted in the lab. He was a great resource and mentor as he helped guide me in my research, which ended up being one of my best experiences at USC.”

Lyon also credits students for their work.

“It’s certainly their labor that’s going into it,” he said, “and if it helps their career, that’s great.”

Many students have received recognition from the Annual Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work, wining top awards. In fact, Lyon maintains a Web page listing the honors students’ names, the titles of their papers and the awards received.

“Tom fosters a culture of excellence, promotes serious and thoughtful collaboration, and works to advance his mentees’ own paths to academic, research and professional success,” Rasmussen said. “I am in awe. He’s a role model for all of us at USC.”

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