Making the Most of Extraordinary Opportunities

U-M alumna Jasmine Manalel shares how her ISR awards bolstered her career.

by Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder

On May 18th, University of Michigan alumna Jasmine Manalel tweeted: “A stranger on a plane, seeing the article I was reviewing, asked if I was a social worker. And for the first time, after years of ‘I’m a graduate student,’ I said, ‘I’m a psychologist.’ It felt right.” This sky-high encounter was a well-earned cloud nine moment for Manalel, who is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in D.C., and who has steadily endeavored to ascend to where she is today.

Manalel, who works in the Social and Behavioral Research Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute, grew up in the D.C. metro area in northern Virginia and received her B.A. from the University of Virginia. It was there that she took elective psychology courses that quickly piqued her interest and she became a research assistant in several different labs. “I wanted to learn more about why our closest relationships are so impactful, in both a positive and negative way,” the 28-year-old says. “I applied to the University of Michigan with the intention of studying social relations, and sure enough, my dissertation was on social networks across the life course.”

She was primarily guided by her advisors, Toni Antonucci and Jacqui Smith. Both women head research groups in the Survey Research Center, which is housed within the Institute for Social Research (ISR). Antonucci is the primary investigator of the Life Course Development Lab and Smith is the primary investigator of the Psychosocial Aging Group. Manalel was a graduate student researcher at both labs. “My first two years were very course-heavy, so I spent a lot of my time at the psychology building,” she says. “But, as I became more involved in research projects, I spent more time at ISR and by the middle of my third year I was working there full-time.” Manalel reflects that it was during this juncture that she learned to be a psychologist, a researcher, a scientist, and a scholar.

Jasmine Manalel

Jasmine Manalel

Striving to become better in all four of these areas is a continuous goal of Manalel’s. And she’s soaking up the support and opportunities for such development at NIH. “I’m learning a lot as a new postdoc, and I love the research I’m getting involved in,” she says. Manalel adds that her new colleagues have made her transition quite smooth by openly welcoming her into the fold.

Furthermore, on a personal level, Manalel’s pretty much back in her old stomping grounds. Yet, while the phrase “home is where the heart is” may ring true for Manalel, she confides that, “although it’s nice to be closer to home, I do miss Ann Arbor and Michigan.” Manalel may miss Ann Arbor, but she knows that despite the distance and being out of sight, she certainly isn’t out of mind. In mid-October, she was awarded the Gerontological Society of America’s Behavioral and Social Sciences Section Student Research Award at the dissertation level. “It was a last-minute application for me. Jacqui Smith urged me to apply and wrote a letter of support on my behalf,” she says. “Even now, as a post-doc, my mentors at Michigan forward me awards, fellowships and grants that they think I’m qualified for.”

Applying for awards and grants is something that Manalel has invested in. “As a graduate student I aimed to apply for everything I was eligible for,” Manalel says. She confesses that’s she’s always surprised when she wins anything, and that there were plenty of times when her efforts were unfruitful. It was during such moments that Manalel counted herself especially lucky to have mentors who believed in her abilities, and who continued to encourage her to apply. Two notable instances that these pushes helped springboard Manalel to success were when she won The Elizabeth Douvan Junior Scholar Fund in 2016 and The Robert Kahn Fellowship for the Scientific Study of Social Issues in 2017. Both awards have proved instrumental in furthering her career as a lifespan developmental researcher.

The Douvan award, which was created to support the research and training activities of junior researchers in the Life Course Development Program at the ISR, provided Manalel with the funds to buy software and other supplies necessary to conduct research. It also funded her travel expenses to attend and present her work at academic meetings. “Conferences, in particular, were instrumental to my progress,” Manalel says, “because they allowed me to meet experts both within and outside of my field, and to receive feedback on my own work.” She also adds that these conferences contributed more generally to her socialization as an academic. “There is very much a hidden curriculum in academia – norms and standards – that are not explicitly taught, but rather implicitly understood by the community,” she explains. “Attending conferences and participating in other academic events increases exposures to these norms. As a young scholar, it’s important to get involved and learn these norms.”

The Kahn Fellowship has been equally important to Manalel’s development. “This award was especially meaningful because, through my dissertation, I tried to honor Dr. Kahn’s commitment to using social science research to address social issues by investigating how we could leverage our close, social networks,” she says. “It provided me with tuition, benefits, and a stipend for two semesters. It essentially funded my last year of graduate school and allowed me to focus full-time on my dissertation.”

Manalel’s dissertation was titled “Social Networks Across the Life Course.” It was an examination of social networks and the connection to well-being at three periods in people’s lives – childhood, young adulthood, and older adulthood. Her first study revealed that the social networks of children are relatively small and family-centric, and that is adaptive. Manalel then examined stability and change in social networks all the way from childhood to early adulthood. She reports, “I found that the changes that are typically experienced, such as increase in social network size and increase in immediate family are consistent with the developmental goals of the transition to adulthood.” Lastly, she took a close look at older adults’ social networks, activity engagement and loneliness. Here Manalel discovered that social integration through activity engagement can balance out inadequate social networks. In summary, she says that “taken together, these findings highlight that it’s important to study social networks with a consideration for the developmental context in which they are formed, evolve, and exert influences on well-being.”

The influence and support of Manalel’s own personal social network at ISR is described by her in one word: priceless. In addition to Antonucci and Smith, she was also mentored by Kira Birditt (a research associate professor in the Life Course Development Program) and generally recalls her colleagues at ISR as positive and generous with their time and resources. “I think ISR really embodied team science, and moving forward it’s something I strive to emulate,” she says.

As it stands, Manalel plans to stride toward to a career in research, but being only a few months into her postdoc she’s willing to entertain all prospects. “One of the advantages of being at NIH is exposure to many different research-related career options,” she says. “Sometimes as an academic, the most ‘planning’ you can do is to seek out opportunities and take hold of the ones you encounter.” As evidenced by what she has been able to accomplish with both The Elizabeth Douvan Junior Scholar Fund and The Robert Kahn Fellowship for the Scientific Study of Social Issues, there’s very little room for doubt that Manalel will work to make the most of anything that comes her way.