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.

Hakeem Jefferson is the winner of the 2017 Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion.

Hakeem Jefferson speaking

Hakeem Jefferson at the Other America Conference, January 2018. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR

For much of Hakeem Jefferson’s childhood, he lived “right through the yard” from his grandparents in Gable, South Carolina. Reflecting on the numerous conversations he had with his beloved grandfather, the 2017 recipient of the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion, recognizes that those porch discourses were fundamental to his development, both as a citizen and a scholar. In fact, those chats were a critical springboard for his love of politics. “Though he lacked much of the formal education I’ve obtained, my grandfather was one of my earliest teachers. He recounted tales about being a black man in the South during the period of Jim Crow, and was keenly aware of how race and power shaped outcomes,” Jefferson says. “My grandfather never told me to stay in my place. He invited me into conversations he would have with others from our community – allowing me to become comfortable early on with wrestling with big, important questions.”

More recently, Jefferson, now 29-years-old and a doctoral student in political science at the University of Michigan (U-M), found himself grappling with the focus of his dissertation. “I really struggled with figuring out exactly what my dissertation would look like. I knew I was interested in heterogeneity among black people. I knew I was interested in stigma. I knew I was particularly interested in ways that black folks thought about punishment,” he says. With the help of his primary advisor, Vince Hutchings, professor of political science and research professor in the Center for Political Studies, Jefferson eventually decided to focus on the curiously high levels of African-American support for punitive social policies that negatively affect the life outcomes of in-group members. His project is titled, “Black, but Not Like Me: When Political Solidarity Breaks Down Among Black Americans.” He is proud to point out that his work is one of the first attempts to theorize and empirically test the connection of politics of respectability, where members of marginalized groups police their own members to show their social values as being continuous with mainstream values, to African-American backing for harsh social policies.

The bulk of Jefferson’s study was conducted using a sample of 500 African-American respondents from YouGov, an online polling firm. He asked respondents various questions regarding their racial group identity. For example: How important is being black to your racial identity? And, how linked do you think your fate is with that of other Blacks? He inquired about the frequency with which they felt an array of emotions when they thought about their racial group. Did they feel shame? Embarrassment? Anger? Respondents also had to answer several policy questions, such as their support for bans on sagging pants, work requirements for welfare recipients, beliefs about the causes of gangs in American cities, and support for the death penalty. “I found that measures of group-based shame correspond with higher scores on the respectability politics measure and that my measure of respectability uniquely predicts black approval for a range of punitive social policies,” he says. He adds, “I had them answer a battery of questions that serve as my respectability politics scale. It’s one of the chief innovations of my work.” Beyond its contribution to the study of African-American politics, Jefferson is confident that his measure and theoretical framework will assist other scholars looking to understand heterogeneity within other marginalized groups – particularly as it pertains to group members’ treatment of the most stigmatized among them.

Garth Taylor

Garth Taylor, photo by Eva Menezes/ISR

Jefferson is also self-assured that he will be able to get at least a couple of papers out of his data and the information will additionally be explored further in a book project. This summer, he’s thrilled to be relocating to Palo Alto, Calif., where he will join the faculty as an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University. Before he moves he’ll have the opportunity to meet retired pollster Garth Taylor, who established the Award in 2013. Taylor, who prefers meeting the recipients when they are near the end of the project, is enthusiastic with Jefferson’s work thus far. “I haven’t had a chance to meet Hakeem yet, though we have had some mail and email exchanges. The plan is for us to meet at one of his public presentations or his dissertation defense,” he says. “What Hakeem has done so far is impressive. He is studying a rare and hard-to-reach population that is expensive to contact. He needed the money to execute a sample that would be carefully selected and large enough to pass the standards for publication in a refereed journal. This is a great use of the fellowship funds – and one I had not imagined at the beginning.”

Jefferson says he has no idea what he would have done had he not won the fellowship, and it has made his life so much easier. “The award is $10,000 and I spent $8,000 on a representative sample of Black Americans from YouGov. I got a lot of great data that formed the basis of my job market paper and is central to the work of my dissertation thanks to Garth Taylor,” he says. And Taylor can certainly appreciate where Jefferson is coming from. He asserts, “I got the idea of the fellowship because I could have really used something like this. It would have been a real asset at a critical time at the beginning of my career. Hakeem now has a good launching pad for his career and a future book.”

In addition to his prospective book project, Jefferson is working on two papers. Also, with his colleague, Steven Moore, he recently organized a conference called, The Other America: Still Separate. Still Unequal. Jefferson says it was designed to give voice to African Americans in the United States who bear the costs of unequal systems across various domains of American life. “We were intentional in bringing together an interdisciplinary group of individuals to talk about issues related to the criminal justice system, economic inequality, education inequity, and environmental justice,” he says. The event was very well-attended and was beyond anything he had imagined.

Darrick, Hamilton, Luke, Shaefer. The Other America Conference

Hakeem, right, speaking with panelists Darrick Hamilton, left, and Luke Shaefer at the Other America Conference in January 2018. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR.

Jefferson is hopeful that his work will “help people understand the multi-faceted and complex nature of inequality and the ways that all of us – sometimes for different and somewhat complicated psychological reasons – contribute to its persistence.” He is still getting messages from people who attended and were moved by the conference. With one African American undergraduate student telling Jefferson that the conference provided additional inspiration to dedicate his career to fighting injustice, and others going out of their way to tell him about the impact it has had on their thinking, it would appear that Jefferson’s hopes are already coming true.

For more information about the research awards offered by the Institute for Social Research, please check out the Awards and Fellowships Page.

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