James Madison University

Dr. Suzanne Baker Demonstrates That Learning Never Stops

By Deirdre E. Myers

PHOTO: Tracy ZinnDr. Suzanne Baker of the JMU Department of Psychology is the 2012-2013 recipient of the Madison Scholar Award for the College of Health and Behavioral Studies. During her time at JMU, Dr. Baker has participated in many projects. One of the most impactful was a an article published in American Psychologist, and later a book, that described benchmarks for Psychology programs.  These benchmarks provide a framework that allows programs to evaluate themselves, determining their strengths and weaknesses.  This self evaluation allows programs to make strategic decisions regarding what they want to emphasize, and help them better serve students. On reviewing programs herself, one of Dr. Baker’s favorite discoveries has been to see just how widely emphasis on areas of research, study, and teaching styles can vary from one program to the next. The beauty of the psychology field, Dr. Baker asserts, is that it can be taken in many different directions.

At James Madison, she notes, there has always been a strong emphasis on teaching, even within the research that professors do. “Being a faculty member here has been great because research in teaching is considered an important part of what we do as both scholars and teachers,” she explains. Using scientific approaches to understand and improve teaching is one aspect of JMU that makes classes so accessible for students.

Part of what Dr. Baker enjoys about teaching and research is the ability to be creative. In a classroom setting, creativity can come in the form of practicing skills, designing lesson plans, or presenting information in a way that will allow students to apply their knowledge to other aspects of their lives. Similarly, she finds that research allows her to be creative in determining what questions to pursue and how to collect information.  Dr. Baker says that she never stops learning from her students, who tap into their own creativity to bring a fresh perspective even to topics with which she has discussed many times. In her research lab, Dr. Baker studies naturalistic behaviors in mice to better understand how animals adapt to their environments.  In her lab she finds that students often voice new ideas that she herself hadn’t thought of. By their actions, her students demonstrate how creativity is an important part of her research process.

Dr. Baker says that through her scholarly projects, she has had the opportunity to work with many colleagues that she admires and respects. She says that collaborating on research is a valuable experience, because she can draw on the wealth of knowledge and experience of professors from other institutions to gain new perspectives on research objectives and findings.

Both Dr. Jane Halonen and Dr. Dana Dunn, colleagues of Dr. Baker, have said that Dr. Baker’s expertise, task management, and critical approach to scholarly projects have made her an asset to their collaborative teams. In addition to her studies involving animal research and human behavior, Dr. Dunn asserts that Dr. Baker “has the gift of being to reflect and write on issues of improving the practice of teaching and student pedagogy, as well as thinking critically about professional issues that face psychology as a discipline.” According to her colleagues, she is able to incorporate aspects of her original area of study in new fields of learning that benefit her peers and her students. Dr. Baker’s contributions to the field of Psychology as a professor and a scholar have made her a great asset to the JMU community, and it is an honor to have her here as a resource for students and faculty alike.