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NIMBioS Postdoctoral Fellow Profile: Robin Taylor

Q&A with Dr. Taylor

R. Taylor photo. Hometown:  Ocean Springs, MS and now Knoxville, TN
Field of Study:  Educational Psychology, Educational Research Methodology and Analysis

What is your field and why does it inspire you? Why did you choose this field?

My career and research interests span across the fields of psychometrics (the measurement of mental traits, abilities, and processes), statistics, and program evaluation. I enjoy the multi-faceted nature of program evaluation which allows me to 1) work with stakeholders to design evaluations that map proposed activities to goals and objectives that can be measured to inform decision-making, 2) find and develop data-collection instruments (e.g., surveys, tests, interview/focus group forms, etc.), 3) use psychometrics to inspect the validity and reliability of data collected; 4) utilize quantitative and qualitative techniques for analyzing and summarizing data; and 5) use various approaches to report and share data with stakeholders so they can understand outcomes and impacts of their program.

Describe your current research.

Currently, I am working with subject matter experts in mathematics and biology to develop and validate a Quantitative Biology Concepts Inventory (QBCI) funded by the NSF Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grant, under the PI, Dr. Pamela Bishop, Associate Director for STEM Evaluation. Concept inventories are used to examine conceptual understanding of a subject and are developed through rigorous research to identify common misconceptions within that subject. Once validated, the QBCI will provide 1) information on levels of students understanding of key quantitative concepts using biological constructs and examples and 2) an assessment of teaching that can inform and improve teaching and curriculum design of quantitative learning goals for undergraduates in the life sciences.

What is the primary aim of your research?

Over the past decade I have gained experience providing evaluation support across a number of different projects and programs; however, the prevalence of my evaluation support has centered on STEM education and workforce development programs. As I enjoy evaluation work and find value in STEM education and workforce development programming, I intend to continue as an evaluator of STEM programs. Currently, my primary research interests pertain to measurement and how utilization of properly validated (or lack thereof) instruments or surveys (which are the measurement tools most widely utilized in social science research) affect findings and interpretation of data. I am currently exploring available tools that assess outcomes and factors associated with STEM success. Ultimately, I want to invest in developing and validating a survey instrument to measure a range of constructs identified as common STEM success factors.

What is the biggest obstacle to achieving your objectives?

Using valid measurement tools for data collection purposes continues to be an obstacle in program evaluation and research in general as the cost for validating an instrument to measure psychological constructs and traits is generally high. Validating an instrument requires many resources – a) subject matter experts for the construct or trait being measured, b) a sufficiently large item pool representing the construct, c) time, d) appropriate-sized population(s) willing to provide honest, unbiased responses to the instrument, e) measurement experts and f) appropriate statistical software. Additionally, instrument validation is a process that undergoes multiple iterations of development, administering, and scoring the instrument before validity and reliability are established. Time and access to appropriate-sized population(s) to pilot test an instrument under development tend to be the most recurrent obstacles for properly validating an instrument or construct scale. In a world where time is money and individuals are inundated with tests, satisfaction surveys, etc., it is difficult to expend the time and resources necessary in both creating and validating an instrument to use for data collection purposes.

What do you like best about your work?

Program evaluation requires a variety of skill sets, processes, and knowledge evoked throughout different phases in the evaluation process, i.e., research and evaluation design, instrument development, quantitative and qualitative analyses, data visualization, written and oral communication. I find the variability in work tasks refreshing, minimizing chances for work to become mundane, monotonous, and a dull routine. I like the opportunities evaluation work provides to collaborate and partner with visionaries and go-getters. I value data-driven decision making, thus appreciate the interpretations and conclusions that can be determined through a well-cultivated evaluation.

Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

So far, adding three letters to the end of my name…

On the other hand, what has been your most discouraging professional moment and how did you recover? What did you learn?

The necessity for including an evaluation and the return on investment that can be achieved through a strong, proper evaluation is not always understood by new principal investigators or program directors; hence, there is a need to sell and market evaluation services. And of course selling means "talking dollars with the client," which can be uncomfortable and discouraging. However, it is an essential component of the business, and with time I have improved my communication skills regarding the costs involved in conducting rigorous evaluations as well as improved my ability to communicate the ways in which evaluation can be used to inform decision-making for the program, identify challenges and/or best practices of the program, and provide accountability to funding agencies. Using the mantra, We work for payment at reasonable wages, helps to keep me focused on the necessity for talking costs and budgeting appropriately for doing quality evaluation work.

What is the best professional advice you ever received?

A community college instructor, who is a former high school trigonometry teacher, advised me during my second year of college to consider a minor in statistics if I was going to major in mathematics, so I did. The application of statistical techniques is used across all fields and disciplines, and having a minor and master's in statistics has served as a major foundation for my career and educational achievements. Also, I use the following two acronyms in my work on a daily basis: GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out and TLAR: That Looks About Right. For example, the more data I analyze the more convinced I am that more time and resources should be expended to ensure that the data collected is valid and reliable, i.e., measures what it is intended to measure and accurately quantifies the degree of the attribute for each individual. Without proper validity and reliability all findings are null and void, hence, GIGO. Data is messy, prone to multiple sources of error, so when analyzing and reporting findings based on data, I use multiple TLAR checkpoints in the hopes of minimizing incorrect conclusions. While the TLAR principle does not ensure total accuracy, it has often served as a helpful process in managing time and narrowing focus on findings that seemed off or unlikely.

Who is your #1 hero and why?

I don't have, nor have ever had, a number one hero or role model. However, there are a number of individuals who I have admired for strengths and qualities they possessed. I admire individuals who demonstrate total forgiveness towards others' misdeeds, positive attitudes, loving kindness and inclusion of all persons, humility, integrity, honesty, caring, self-sacrifice, generosity, intelligence, etc. For as Mother Teresa is quoted: "People are often unreasonable and self-centered, forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives, be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you, Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous, Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten, Do good anyway. Give the world your best and it may never be enough, bive your best anyway; for you see, in the end it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."

What do you do when you're not in the lab or out in the field?

Hide-and-go-seek with my two boys is currently a favorite pastime—of course, this likely is because of my competitive nature and the boys' inability to remain silent and/or hide in a unique spot. I also enjoy playing soccer every now and again, even if my body seems most unwilling. I excel at naptime, and sleeping in general. I love to read, although this can be a dangerous habit as I can too easily get consumed in reading a good story and forget to attend to responsibilities around me, like feeding the kids. I enjoy traveling, the outdoors, and really bad television shows.

Robin Taylor's Postdoc page

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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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