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BA Psychology - Social scientist to science communicator

  • Name :Lori Palen (she/her)

  • Job title:Owner & Principal Consultant at Data Soapbox, a research communication firm

  • A levels/ equivalent :N/A

  • Undergrad and post grad degrees :

  1. Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, The College of William & Mary

  2. Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy in Human Development and Family Studies, The Pennsylvania State University

  • Favourite science fact: For a woman who has had biological children, her children’s DNA can be found in her body even decades after their birth -> read more

Journey in 3 Words :Practitioner, scientist, communicator

  • Briefly describe yourself ?

I’m a trained social scientist. Including graduate school, I spent 17 years as an adolescent health researcher, studying the prevention of risk behaviors like substance abuse, sexual risk behavior, and relationship violence. As my career progressed, I got more and more interested in the back end of the research process, when findings are shared with people who can use them. I eventually decided to pursue research communication full time. I couldn’t find an existing opportunity that worked for me, so I made my own! In early 2021, I started Data Soapbox, a research communication firm. We design products like reports, presentations, and infographics for clients in the research, education, and human service spaces.

  • How did you know a PhD was for you?

Honestly, I wasn’t initially sure! I had worked in substance abuse treatment for a couple of years and knew I wanted to go back to school to learn about preventing risk behaviors before they start. I found out that I could pay to go to a master’s degree program, or I could get paid (through a graduate assistantship) to get a PhD. I figured that graduating without student loans (and being “Dr. Palen”!) was worth a few additional years of school. My program ended up being a good fit, I learned a lot, and it positioned me well for the work I do now.

  • As a social scientist, What is your biggest pet peeve about how the world perceives your field ?

I get irked that social science, either explicitly or by omission, sometimes gets framed as being “less” than the natural sciences, like biology, chemistry, and physics. (You can read my comprehensive rant about this issue here.) As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, biochemical vaccine research tells us nothing about how to get people to show up for the shots. Questions about human behavior (including how to predict and change it) are critical to our health and well-being, and brilliant people are attempting to answer those questions in rigorous ways.

" Communication was the area in which I got to shine, and when you shine in something that you also enjoy, it’s pretty appealing to make that your specialty. "

  • How did academia treat you and what motivated the transition to communication ?

(I wasn’t really in academia after graduate school; I worked at a non-profit research institute.) At the research institute where I worked, I was (understandably, and completely logically) expected to “do research,” which meant engaging in the whole process of study design, execution, and reporting. I worked with a lot of talented researchers who could run circles around me when it came to theory, study design, and data analysis. Communication was the area in which I got to shine, and when you shine in something that you also enjoy, it’s pretty appealing to make that your specialty.

  • Starting a business in a pandemic isn’t easy, how do you manage Work- Life Balance as the word transitions into this “new normal”?

Starting a business in the midst of a pandemic was tough! I originally planned to launch Data Soapbox in summer 2020, but all of my bandwidth was taken up with physical, emotional, and economic survival. By the end of 2020, it felt like things had settled down enough that leaving my stable, well-paying job wouldn’t be a complete disaster.

I have two sons, ages 6 and 9, one with major health and education challenges. By necessity, my default work-family balance leans heavily family, so for me the challenge is carving out dedicated time to work.

Having my own business gives me maximum flexibility in when, where, and how I do my job. I can be available for parent-teacher conferences and doctor’s appointments and lunch with my parents, and I can do focused communication work when my kids are sleeping or in someone else’s care.

  • What experiences had the most impact on your current career trajectory? And specifically internships?

I attended an Edward Tufte workshop in 2007, and it was the first time I’d ever heard someone present alternatives to traditional academic/scientific communication. Over the years, I soaked up books and internet resources about effective communication, including content from Stephanie Evergreen, Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, and Randy Olson. When I started planning to start my business, I took community college classes in graphic design and journalism to further build my skills.

  • What transferrable skills do you use from your degrees now in your current role?

Lots of them! My university education taught me how to digest scientific literature, interpret statistics, think critically, and write clearly and logically. And then, even though I’m no longer active in conducting research, that part of my training helps me better understand my clients’ goals, resources, and constraints.

  • Which resources helped you most during your career journey?

I’d previously mentioned the big names in the field who helped me make the pivot from research to research communication. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much exposure to science communication best practices and careers when I was in school. Now I see all sorts of interesting student opportunities, which make me excited for the next generation of science communicators.

"rejection is the price we pay for taking chances "

  • What advice would you give on dealing with rejection and perseverance?

I love this question! In this age of seeing everyone’s highlight reels on social media, we need to be talking more about rejection and failure. In graduate school alone, I was rejected for the first conference I ever applied to, multiple journal manuscripts, my first two dissertation proposals, my NIH dissertation grant proposal, my first predoctoral fellowship proposal, and all but two jobs I applied to. I also got rejected by (counting on my fingers) at least half a dozen guys.

And there are some times when rejection really hurts...when it’s something that you expected to get, when it’s something you really wanted to have, when it’s something that everyone you know got. But, rejection is the price we pay for taking chances.

There are a few things that help me cope with rejection. Taking some time to sulk about it. (Things usually look better with some time and distance.) Using the rejection as motivation to kick ass at the next thing I try. Filling my life with people and things I love, so that post-rejection life is still pretty great. But, I’ve never stopped taking chances, even if I have to assess whether I should try for something different next time.

  • When considering your career path, how much has your potential salary affected your decision

For the most part, potential salary hasn’t had much impact on my career decisions. However, there are a couple of exceptions. I worked in human services for two years after undergrad, and part of what pushed me back to graduate school was the realization that I wanted to make more than $11.35 an hour. And then, when I worked as a researcher, the good salary made it harder to decide to venture into the unknowns of entrepreneurship.

  • Outside science how would you describe yourself?

I’m a mom, wife, daughter, and sister. I’m also an avid reader and an arts-and-crafts enthusiast. I can be serious when I need to, but I’d rather be laughing.


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