Walk into the offices of most professors and you’re in a room lined with bookshelves stacked ceiling to floor.
Not so in the office of Tom Lyon, holder of the Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Chair in Law and Psychology at the USC Gould School of Law and USC Dornsife. Along one long wall is a white board with four handwritten columns: Honors Projects; In Progress; Manuscript Prep/Submission; Deadlines. Under each column are names, notes and dates.
The system keeps Lyon and his team on target for his extensive research relating to the testimony of children in cases involving abuse and domestic violence. Just as important: The system keeps track of the activities of students currently learning from and working with one of the law school’s most prolific scholars and developing research skills to launch their own professional careers.
Under Lyon’s tutelage this year are two recent USC graduates, a graduate student in social work, a postdoctorate and a law student, and 17 USC Dornsife undergraduates majoring in psychology and serving as research assistants.
Lyon’s ongoing guidance of students from across USC has earned him the 2014 Provost’s Mentoring Award, which he will formally receive at the Academic Honors Convocation on April 8. Bestowed 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.
Lyon said he was “overwhelmed” when notified of the honor and even “blushed” when he read the nomination letter sent by USC Gould Dean Robert K. Rasmussen. His first thought was, “why me?”
“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.
“This is the way I would think everyone would want to work,” he explained. “When I come into the office, there are lots of people here and lots of interaction. It just makes life so much more enjoyable when I work with more students.”
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.”
After receiving his law degree at Harvard University, Lyon worked as an attorney in Los Angeles County’s Division of Children’s Services before earning his Ph.D. in developmental psychology at Stanford University.
In the past 10 years, Lyon has been awarded nearly $4 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop and test protocols to interview mistreated children about their abuse. He 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, which has been downloaded more than 8,000 times.
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 research 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 said.
“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.”
In addition to his work with psychology students, Lyon works with USC Gould students on projects such as drafting amicus briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court and co-authoring law review articles.
Lyon’s commitment to his students is impressive. 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.”
Another student identified her work in Lyon’s lab as her “most formative experience” at USC, adding: “Perhaps most importantly, he approached my errors with patience and kindness that were unparalleled by any other figure in my time at USC.”
Eleven of Lyon’s honors students have won awards at the Annual Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work since 2005. In fact, Lyon maintains a Webpage 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 academics, research and professional success,” Rasmussen said. “I am in awe. He’s a role model for all of us at USC.”