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.

Kirill Zhirkov, winner of the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award and the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion is looking for answers to timely questions.

by Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder

Kirill Zhirkov believes that among all the vast mysteries in the world humans are the biggest one. “I am among those people for whom knowledge represents possibly the largest motivation in life,” says the 32-year-old Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. “If my research can improve the understanding of how humans behave in politics and why they behave the way they do, even by a tiny bit, I’ll be happy.” The international student (who is pursuing a dual M.A. degree in the Department of Statistics) has had many reasons to be happy recently. And at least two of those reasons are related to help he has received towards his research – last summer Zhirkov won the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award and this past summer he received the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion.

Before landing at the University of Michigan (U-M), Zhirkov worked as a junior fellow at the Laboratory of Comparative Social Research in St. Petersburg, Russia. He earned an M.A. in social psychology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and a B.A. in economics from Russia’s St. Petersburg State University. “The story of how I ended up studying in Michigan spans almost 10 years, three countries, and thousands of kilometers,” he says. “It also features multiple U-M and Institute for Social Research (ISR) professors who helped and inspired me along the way,” he adds. The short version includes a couple of important details: Zhirkov enjoyed a semester as a visiting scholar for the ISR in 2013, returned to Russia afterward and by 2014 he knew that he would be doing his graduate studies at U-M. “I was so impressed with the university. When I was first here in 2013, I could approach almost any faculty member and they would take time to talk to me. Sometimes for as long as 20 minutes,” he says. “I hadn’t experienced that in Russia or the Netherlands. I wasn’t even technically their student, but they were willing to support me.”

Speaking to the more recent support he has received via the two awards, Zhirkov recalls that both times when he was notified that he won, he quickly cycled through the same thought processes. “First I was surprised. I knew these were very competitive awards. Then I got excited as I started thinking about how I could improve my research using the awards’ money,” he says. Essentially, Zhirkov studies how people think about politically relevant categories (such as partisans, welfare recipients and immigrants). He says that these categories tend to be abstract and complicated. “Most people don’t possess a ton of knowledge about them,” he explains. “So, they link these categories to ones that are relatively simple and familiar.” He illustrates what he means with an easy-to-recognize example. “A popular stereotype here in the United States links welfare recipients and African-Americans. I attempt to measure such stereotypes and apply them to study anti-immigration attitudes both in the U.S. and in Europe,” he says.

Zhirkov’s dissertation is about “imagined immigration.” His aim is to develop a generalizable theory of public opinion formation with regard to group-related policies, using immigration as an example. “It is well-known in behavioral political science that people are never perfectly informed about the policies that they have to form opinions about in order to participate most effectively in the democratic process,” he says. Zhirkov’s most important findings so far: people have essential misperceptions about the composition of the immigrant population; misperceptions come from both over-generalization of personal experience and the media; misperceptions are consequential for public opinion about immigration, and attempts to correct misperceptions seem to backfire.

As he pushes forward with his work, Zhirkov doesn’t take for granted for the support he’s received. “I have so much gratitude to the donors for the opportunities they offer to graduate students generally, and especially to international students, like myself, who are often ineligible for many other popular sources of funding,” he says. For Garth Taylor, the retired pollster who created the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion in 2013, it’s gratifying to assist students like Zhirkov. “My commitment is to the topic of American public opinion research,” he says. “The fact that a non-American is in a position to provide top-quality work does not surprise me, and it pleases me to be able to provide a resource that will make this work possible.”

Zhirkov has started putting the Taylor award money to good use. He happily reports, “I ran the key pilot study for my dissertation that effectively pretested the measurement instrument – just as described in my award application.” The results of the pilot were presented at professional conferences this year both in the United States and Europe. Zhirkov says that he plans to spend the rest of the funds to access diverse samples of respondents, beyond popular convenience samples such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. “That would be impossible without the award money,” he confides.

The money from the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award has had an equally beneficial impact on Zhirkov’s research. He shares that it opened up new possibilities for his dissertation in terms of data collection that were almost unthinkable before. With this fund, Zhirkov was able to collect data and spend almost a month as a visiting scholar in GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences. “The institute is a major center of quantitative social sciences and survey research situated in Cologne, Germany,” he says. “Overall, my research benefited enormously during my time there.”

One person who is very satisfied to know all this Carol Welsch, Angus Campbell’s daughter. Her father enjoyed a distinguished career at U-M as a professor of psychology and sociology and held directorships at the university’s Survey Research Center and the ISR. “The Angus Campbell Scholar’s Fund began after the death of my father in 1980. It was my mother’s effort to honor my father with a funded scholarship program in his name,” she explains. “I love that Kirill’s dissertation work in understanding political changes in Europe and the U.S., relates to main areas my father’s work: political behavior, quality of life, and social change.” Welsch was also struck when Zhirkov told her of the importance of the scholarship to his future career. “He mentioned that the affiliation to ISR and the Campbell Scholarship could make a difference, above and beyond the monetary value, to his success, she says. “I hadn’t thought of the scholarship in that way at the outset, and it was a reminder that my father’s legacy is enlivened, and my mother would be pleased.”

The support that Zhirkov has received has indeed made a difference to his life and he hopes that his research will make a difference in the lives of others and society in general.
He strongly believes that immigration represents the focal point in the profound transformations that occurred in politics of developed democracies over the last two decades. He explains that in western Europe, the political landscape was completely reshaped by the rise of the anti-immigrant right parties and the decline of the traditional social democratic left. “In U.S. politics, the most recent manifestation of anti-immigrant attitudes has been the successful presidential campaign of Donald Trump,” he says. “Political science still needs to fully understand the origins of mass policy preferences that underlie these developments, and I hope that my research will provide at least some answers in this regard.”

Shuqiao Sun is the inaugural winner of the James Morgan Innovation in the Analysis of Economic Behavior Fund Award.

When 27-year-old Shuqiao Sun decided to pursue economics and statistics degrees in his native China, he never imagined that he would be completing his PhD at the University of Michigan (U-M). “But, as my studies unfolded, I came to realize that U-M is one of the best places to study social issues. I thought the school had a very unique quality of combining innovative research methods and data collection. So I decided to make a move after I graduated from Peking University,” says Sun, currently a doctoral student in U-M’s Department of Economics.

PSID - Panel Study of Income DynamicsBy a strange coincidence or perhaps even curious foreshadowing, Sun, while working as a research assistant in China, often found himself using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). Directed by a dedicated group of U-M faculty, PSID is the world’s longest-running household panel survey and is now celebrating its 50th year. The longitudinal survey of a nationally representative sample of American individuals and families boasts continuous data collection since 1968. “I was amazed by PSID’s comprehensive collection of various information,” Sun says. He had read in the PSID user guide how Dr. James Morgan, the study’s founding director, fought to conduct this important national survey. “I was awestruck,” Sun recalls. Today, Sun is again in a state of astonishment, because five years after leaving China, serendipity struck and his life has intersected with the late Dr. Morgan’s in the most marvelous way. In March, he became the inaugural winner of the James Morgan Innovation in the Analysis of Economic Behavior Fund Award.

Shuqiao Sun (left) with Janet Morgan at the PSID 50th Anniversary Celebration. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR.

Although Sun was unable to personally thank Dr. Morgan, he attended PSID’s 50th anniversary dinner and Dr. Morgan’s memorial service in April. “I met Dr. Morgan’s children and expressed my sincere gratitude to his daughter Janet. I told her that I was deeply humbled and honored,” he says. Sun also recalls that the event was very emotional and that he was moved by the stories of Dr. Morgan’s life as a loving father and a pioneering scholar. Dr. Morgan arrived at U-M in 1949 as a postdoctoral fellow in economics and was one of the founding members of the Institute for Social Research (ISR). In addition to PSID, he is famed for starting SEARCH, the first data mining program. After an illustrious 38-year career at U-M, during which Dr. Morgan was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, he retired with distinction as research scientist emeritus and professor emeritus of economics. With the help of his family, Dr. Morgan, who passed in January at age 99, established the award as a way to help young scholars and encourage further use of PSID. “After he retired, he stayed engaged with the institute and argued economics until he died,” Janet Morgan says. “My father never bragged about his work, so I’m glad that he is being honored.”

During the course of the memorial and celebration, Sun also had the opportunity to get better acquainted with PSID director Dr. David Johnson. Johnson, who served on the award’s selection committee, first met with Sun after it was announced that he had won the $10,000 fund. “I’m honored that Sun is our first winner. I also believe that Jim would be pleased with Sun’s research. Jim always wanted the PSID to evaluate family change,” Johnson says. “And Sun’s investigations will link children’s experience with childhood interventions like Head Start, the places where they grew up, their family’s background, and then examine their well-being when they become adults,” he adds.

Research in education and health has been Sun’s passion since he first entered the field of economics. “I find it fascinating that one can use economics to study various family behaviors,” he says. “I grew up in Beijing, China, as an only child. My parents always strongly believed that education is very important, but so is love and support in a warm home environment.” Despite the geographic distance and a 12-hour time difference, Sun gratefully still receives support from his parents–he phones them every weekend without fail. He is also lucky to have his wife, Jingyuan Zhai, with him in Michigan. At U-M, Sun is thankful for the help of his advisor, Professor Martha Bailey. “She initially encouraged me to pursue the award and has been a continuous source of great advice as I formulated a specific research plan,” Sun says.

As it stands, Sun intends to examine evidence of dynamic complementarities between early stages of childhood. “I’ll use PSID to study the complementarities between early childhood family resources and preschool education,” Sun says. He explains that there is extensive literature documenting the benefits of investing in children. Researchers are trying to understand why the early childhood years are particularly instrumental. One theoretical account is dynamic complementarities. This explanation argues early childhood investment is important because it is not only beneficial on its own, but also increases the productivity of subsequent investments.

That there are complementarities between investments undertaken at various times is theoretically sound, but empirically hard to test, Sun says. He recognizes the importance of this research area largely because of his work with economists Martha Bailey and Brenden Timpe on a paper that evaluates the long-run impacts of Head Start, America’s public preschool program for disadvantaged children.

There are many disadvantages associated with poverty–Sun points to children from poor families often having deficient reading skills prior to elementary school. “This could cause early school dropouts and future unemployment and is why providing school readiness could be instrumental in preventing, rather than curing, poverty,” Sun says. He adds that there is, however, an ongoing political debate about whether public programs for disadvantaged children are wasteful, since some previous research has been imprecise and inconclusive. Sun intends to apply a more credible research method, based on better data. “It might help policy makers understand how to break the cycle of poverty by facilitating good, evidence-based, policy-making,” Sun says.

When asked what research hurdles may lie before him, Sun speaks to the challenge of studying the combined impact of more than one childhood intervention. He reports that it requires a very clean identification strategy to disentangle the effects of exposure to different environments, and a detailed picture of children’s childhood development and human capital outcomes in the long-run. “Statistical power is also a great challenge,” he says. Furthermore, he adds that “the long-term effects of things that happened in childhood can be subtle. It really requires getting the most out of the data.”

Luckily, Sun will be in bright, caring company should he run into any roadblocks as his research takes shape. Confident in Sun’s abilities, Johnson advises him to work to understand the PSID and the methods to evaluate intergenerational impacts. “And it will serve Sun well to approach notable economists and try to interact with researchers from other disciplines–this is what is great at U-M and ISR–the cross-disciplinary research and collaboration,” says Johnson. Dr. Morgan’s daughter agrees. “My father valued most the creative and integrative work environment at ISR, with all the diverse disciplines coming together to solve real problems,” she says. She recalls how truly concerned her father was of global problems and that he had a remarkable talent for getting along with people from all walks of life. That said, she advises Sun “to keep future research interdisciplinary and to be socially engaged in helping the world.”

Morgan’s and Johnson’s guidance is something that Sun doesn’t take lightly. “I feel encouraged by their support and the support of so many other people at U-M. The generous award will be career-changing not only to me, but to many other young scholars who share Dr. Morgan’s passion and vision,” he says. “I really hope that when I finish the project, the paper I write will be worthy of Dr. Morgan’s name and the legacy he left behind at U-M.”

Yuan He, is the Inaugural Winner of the Bachman Fellowship for Research on Change in American Youth

He, sitting on the ground in the forest

Yuan He, the 2017 Bachman Research Fellow on Change in American Youth

When 26-year-old Yuan He (her first name is pronounced You-en or You-awn), received her law degree in 2013 from Peking University in China, she decided not to immediately practice law, but instead pursue a PhD in sociology. “I was motivated by my continued passion for studying and understanding how social inequality is constructed,” she says. So, leaving her home and family in China’s Yunnan province, she arrived in Michigan in August 2014, knowing that she would find the doctoral program at the University of Michigan (U-M) a challenge. Now in her fourth year of studies in the U-M Department of Sociology, He confides that the program can feel like a difficult marathon. But, she’s been able to keep the finish line in sight with her family’s support, despite the long distance between them. “My parents remind me about patience and perseverance and always advise me not to freak out if, in the short run, I don’t see myself making progress, she says.”

As it turns out, He’s steadfastness and academic endurance has paid off as she also found support through the Jerald and Virginia Bachman Research Fellowship on Change in American Youth. As the inaugural winner of the $5,000 award, which she received in May 2017, she was able to utilize the funds as her summer stipend. “I was able to free myself from summer teaching obligations and focus on research. I also had a wonderful meeting with Jerry and Ginny Bachman,” she says. “I feel extremely grateful for their generous investment in young scholars, and for creating this opportunity for me to explore a topic that has long been close to my heart.” Her benefactors – who initiated the fellowship to get further mileage out of the wide range of data collected in the Monitoring the Future (MTF) project – took equal delight in meeting He. “Both my wife and I found her to be bright, energetic and personable,” says Jerald Bachman. “We’re happy that Yuan now has the advantage of a running start, having already done some analyses using data from the MTF project,” he adds.

MTF was conceived in the late 1960s with the initial data collection in 1975. There is over four decades of data on the lifestyles and values of high school seniors, with later extensions to include adult follow-ups and then surveys of 8th and 10th grade students. Commenting on He’s ambitions, Bachman says, “I was reminded of my own initial research at the U-M Institute of Social Research, more than a half century ago, which exploited existing data that was clustered into different organizational groups.” He adds, “Yuan is making good use of the fact that the MTF 12th grade respondents are surveyed in high schools and thus clustered in ways that can be readily analyzed. This is an advantage considering that she is looking at possible effects of different racial compositions in schools.”

He’s research mainly focuses on race and ethnicity, sociology of education, and social stratification. Specifically, her study supported by the Bachman fellowship utilizes data from MTF, along with census data, to examine whether within-school racial diversity plays a role in shaping youth’s racial attitudes and future school preferences. “The award has definitely facilitated my research progress and helped set the stage for my dissertation,” she says. “My dissertation will explore social mechanisms that may shift or perpetuate existing patterns of racial gaps in education through the lens of residential and school segregation.”

Currently, He is planning to present her findings in two papers that are currently in progress. The first, deals with racial attitudes and is titled “Is School Segregation Self-Perpetuating?” She explains that although past studies show that parental school preferences may have partly contributed to continued school segregation, the opposite side of the casual link – whether school segregation leads to students’ pro-segregation attitudes in the first place – has yet to be sufficiently examined. In the same vein, He is working toward completing another paper named “Mix Together, Expect Better? – The Role of School Socioeconomic Heterogeneity in Shaping Students’ Educational Expectations.”

He strongly believes that her efforts have the potential to contribute to literature on both “school effects” (the long-standing sociological debates around whether school context matters) and the formation of racial attitudes. She is confident that some of her findings will also shed light on the long-term effect of existing school segregation. “For instance, ongoing school racial segregation might have the tendency to perpetuate itself in the long run if, as my primary analysis implies, students who attended segregated institutions are more likely to think it’s more desirable to send their future children to segregated schools,” He says.

Given the resurgence of school racial segregation and rising class-based school segregation (partially due to continued residential segregation and increasing income segregation), He stresses that it is especially important to revisit the role of school racial diversity and understand mechanisms that might influence future trends. “In an ideal world, even for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, education can be an empowering tool that creates opportunities for growth and upward social mobility. It should be able to free people from structural societal limitations, such as existing income gap and racial inequality,” He says. “However, in the real world, an individual’s access to educational opportunities and resources is largely determined – or at least affected by their race and class.”

She points to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case as an example of the real world timeliness of her research. “Although we have conquered the barriers of school racial segregation legally more than six decades ago, unfortunately school segregation and unequal distribution of educational resources continue to shape the reality we live in,” He asserts. That said, there are some very important questions she is striving to address in the public interest: Who is most likely to bear the brunt of school segregation? Who is becoming more disadvantaged in the arena of education? And, who is being left behind because of existing residential and school segregation? These big questions are driven by He’s bigger desire for answers regarding how educational institutions – often perceived as the “great equalizers” – (re)produce inequalities. “I strongly believe that education can be, or should be, transformative,” she says, “but my training has made me mindful that existing social institutions might maintain or exacerbate existing disparities in educational outcomes, and I aim to understand the social mechanisms that may lead to inequalities within the great equalizers.”

Faculty Profiles

ISR’s faculty experts conduct groundbreaking and wide-ranging social science research — representing more than 20 academic disciplines. Included below are two examples of the type of work being done by members of our team.

  • Jennifer Ann Smith

    Associate Professor of Epidemiology, School of Public Health and Research Associate Professor, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research
    Dr. Smith received her Ph.D. in Epidemiology, M.P.H. in Health Management and Policy, and M.A. in … more
  • Deborah Marie Robinson

    Research Investigator, Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research
    Dr. Robinson is a researcher and senior program manager with more than 25 years of experience working with grassroots community … more