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Stephen Popkin

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’88 Psychology | Deputy Director for Research and Technology, U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center | Milton, MA
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Stephen Popkin

Liberal Arts Major: Psychology

Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA

Current Location: Milton, MA

What enrichment activities did you participate in as a student?

While at Penn State, I took part in supporting a number of research projects in my major (Psychology), which provided great preparation for graduate school. I also completed an informal internship at Development Dimensions International in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the summer I graduated. This company provided the practical side of industrial/organizational psychology, a counterpoint to the research I had been conducting on campus, which was useful later on when considering career paths. In addition, I was the president of the Liberal Arts Undergraduate Council from 1986–88, which provided a great leadership opportunity.

What was your first job after graduating from Penn State?

My first professional position in the United States, not including being a teaching assistant or research assistant during graduate school, was as a research psychologist supporting the submarine force in New London, Connecticut. This job allowed me to apply human factors and experimental psychology principals in improving the job of the sonar watchstander. While there, I had the opportunity to initiate a new research program at that lab regarding submarine watch schedules, balancing staffing and human performance constraints with moving from an 18- to 24-hour sleep-wake schedule.

What was your favorite class and who was your favorite faculty member?

My favorite class was Social Psychology with Professor Melvin Mark. His passion for the material, and improvisations of the classic experiments, left a lasting memory and a smile whenever I think about them.

How did your liberal arts education and skills prepare you for life after graduation?

My liberal arts education allowed me to be flexible and adaptable in my thinking and approach to novel situations. The ability to synthesize disparate information and think through innovative solutions are traits that are highly valuable and in demand in any workplace, and have served me well throughout my career.

What networking advice would you share with current students?

As humans, we have the ability to reflect, step back, and understand a particular situation and our own thinking and actions within it. Being mentally present, especially in stressful or difficult situations, and learning from them, is powerful. Having a small group you can turn to and use as a truthful mirror of what you can do better, is one of the most powerful and helpful tools I have deliberately nurtured throughout my career.

What role have mentors played in your career progression?

We are always riding on the shoulders of others. Anyone, knowingly or not, can be a mentored if you stop to reflect on what it is about them that you admire and wish to bring into who you are. Formal mentors are useful to work on specific topics of interest, which will change over time as you change. However, the world is full of informal mentors and lessons if you are open to it and know yourself well.

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