PhD Profile: Dr. Lisa Benz Scott

posted Apr 3, 2014, 8:06 AM by Nadia Jaber   [ updated May 13, 2014, 8:24 AM ]

Lisa Benz Scott is Director of the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook Medicine, and Associate Professor in the Schools of Health Technology and Management, Medicine (Preventive Medicine, and Cardiovascular Medicine), and Dental Medicine. She has served as full-time faculty since 2002. She received her PhD from The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, a MS in Health Promotion from Purdue University, and a BA in Psychology from Stony Brook University. Her faculty bio is available at:

Background and Career Path: I was raised on Long Island and graduated from Stony Brook University with a BA in Psychology in 1994. In my senior year, I studied Health Psychology “abroad” at Middlesex University in London. During my studies in England, I volunteered as a research assistant to learn about health behavior research focused on overweight/obesity and eating practices.

After college graduation, I received a scholarship to attend Purdue University for a Masters degree in Health Promotion. My advisor mentored me in the art of scientific writing and taught me to publish. Thanks to the encouragement of this mentor (and now life-long friend), I began my PhD training in the social and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in 1996. During the second year of my training, I was a teaching assistant for several courses in my field, which helped me to learn how to prepare as a course instructor (very valuable for my first faculty position a few years later).

During the last 2 years of my pre-doctoral training, I worked full-time for a health behavior research think tank in Washington DC, the Center for the Advancement of Health (now called the Center for Advancing Health). I held the position of “research scientist” and collaborated on projects that translated scientific evidence into summary reports for health policy decision-makers and media channels. I had the opportunity to attend press briefings at the U.S. Capital buildings, and work with scientists to distill their findings into messages for the public.

I chose to leave this job to accept a nationally competitive post-doctoral fellowship position at Johns Hopkins, funded for 2 years by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which focused on community-based participatory research and health disparities. Upon completing post-doctoral training, I had very strong skills as an independent investigator, a multi-disciplinary team member and a community-academic partnership builder.

I returned to Stony Brook to launch my academic career as an Assistant Professor in 2002, and quickly moved up the ranks to tenured Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Research of the School of Health Technology and Management within 5 years. After 10 years with the SHTM, I was asked to serve as the Director of the Graduate Program in Public Health under the Senior Vice President of the Health Sciences, leading an exciting faculty of public health researchers, educators, and practitioners, and training MPH students. I thoroughly enjoy my colleagues, including faculty, staff, students, alumni, and our partners.

Why did you choose health behavior research and population health / public health? I think that this field CHOSE ME! I was always drawn to theoretical and conceptual frameworks, and intrigued by the many social, behavioral, contextual and environmental factors that predict human behavior. When my father died of a heart attack in his 50s, I had many questions about chronic disease prevention and management. I was in college at the time of his death, and was looking for answers in my coursework in health and social psychology. I had a natural curiosity and a passion for improving public health to reduce the burden of diseases such as heart disease on communities, and a research career fit my analytic needs.

How did you get the interview for your first academic job? The first part of getting an interview is having the academic credentials needed to stand out. I thank many mentors for taking the time to train me, point me in the direction of pre- and post-doctoral training and funding opportunities, and teaching me how to write competitive grants and publications. The second part of getting an interview is matching your credentials, interests, and lifestyle needs with the job opportunity. I got an interview because I understood the teaching needs of the position and was successful in demonstrating that I had the content expertise to hit the ground running. I was a TA during my graduate training and won a teaching award, which provided evidence of my teach abilities and potential to be a valuable addition to the faculty. Lastly, I got an interview because I responded quickly to the search committee and was available on short notice (the interview was scheduled within a week of submitting my application).

What skills did you build or opportunities did you take while you were a student? I said “YES” to many opportunities that were unpaid but invaluable learning experiences which taught me about the research process, from planning to dissemination (how to write publications, how to give scientific presentations, how to present research at community-based forums, how to facilitate community-academic partnerships). I trained with several different types of scientists, clinicians, and community-based mentors.

What advice do you have for current graduate students? It is very valuable to work on manuscripts for publication as an active participant in the authorship process, and to work on grant proposal writing (in addition to working on funded research). If relevant to your field, pursue post-doctoral studies to the extent possible. Work experience is very valuable, particularly in related industries (academic think tanks, government agencies at the county/state/national levels, or foundations). Pursue academic jobs that are in work environments that are well matched to your lifestyle priorities. Tenure track positions are not for everyone, and it is important to be honest about the balance you want to have in work/life, and the type of work culture that will nurture your needs as a researcher, and/or educator/teacher, and/or citizen (service to a cause).