I’m a lot of things, and simply stating my professional activities before anything else seems odd. So, before entering that arena, let me introduce a broader picture of me. First, I’m enthusiastic about the great outdoors and spend every minute I can hiking, trail running, climbing, mountaineering, and simply enjoying nature with my dogs. I’m trying my hand at gardening, and hope to learn how to grow more of the food I eat. Finally, I’m curious about a multitude of topics, including: culture, language, physics, computers (both hardware and software), philosophy, art, music, and board games.
My early life consisted of a turbulent childhood punctuated by episodes of severe abuse, trauma, and general instability. I may write more about the details at a future date, but the abstract if you will, is that after another episode of violence from a recently acquired fifth husband, my mother declared that “He is here to stay.” and that “You [I] should make your [my] choice.” Thus, at the age of 15, I walked out of my mother’s house with a bag slung over my shoulder containing a few personal belongings and the essentials bits of clothing needed for a Rocky Mountain winter. I never returned.
At nearly 22 years old I entered college and began what would turn out to be a rather long journey to satiate a thirst for knowledge I barely knew I had. The more I learned the more I wanted to know how we know what we consider knowledge. My curiosity, a little work, and a lot of luck, led me around the world, through graduate school, and continues to guide my research and career today.
My personal experiences with abuse, instability, trauma, and their down-stream consequences, provide me with a unique perspective and drive to explore mechanisms that can potentially help reduce the long-term health consequences of disadvantage faced by individuals, and more importantly populations, with lower socioeconomic means and resources including those due to systemic racism. In short, while I have not experienced the typical love and support of family or the other social structures that many take for granted, I have, and do, benefit from the advantages of a system built for people who look like me (i.e. White, male, and heteronormative passing). My goal as a population scientist is to explore the empirical evidence surrounding these disparities and produce knowledge that can help elucidate the connections between human biology and the social world with the hope that these findings will form the basis of public policy and improve the lives of all people by lifting up the most disadvantaged among us.
Now to the professional picture: Currently, I’m a Program Officer with the Population and Social Processes (PSP) branch of the Division of Behavioral and Social Science Research (DBSR) at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where I manage a grant portfolio covering biodemography and population genetic research investigating the long arms of social and genetic inheritance on later life outcomes.
Prior to joining the NIH, I was a Research Scientist at the Center for Health Outcomes & Population Equity (HOPE) at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and University of Utah, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Behavioral Science and Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado Boulder where my research interests centered on social stratification, population health, inequality/inequity, advanced quantitative methodologies, and the integration of social science and omics research.
I received my Ph.D. from the Sociology department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I was also a pre-doctoral trainee at the Carolina Population Center. Before attending UNC, I worked as a statistical consultant at Brigham Young University where I earned both Undergraduate (Economics) and Master’s (Sociology) degrees.
My dissertation leveraged the theoretical foundations of the Unified Stratification Theory, à la Adkins and Vaisey (2009), and a host of methodological approaches (i.e., extended twin-family design, SNP-based heritability, and polygenic penetrance) to studying gene-environment interactions (GxEs) in educational attainment. In this line of work heritability estimates are viewed as reflexive measures of the social/institutional values and structures of a society. This approach melds traditional “Status Attainment” models (in the fashion of Blau and Duncan  and the “Wisconsin Model” [e.g., Sewell et al. 1969; Hauser, Tsai, and Sewell 1983]) of social stratification with sociogenomic data and methods to better understand the role of resource inequalities in early-life on later-life educational outcomes. One advantage of this approach is that it implicitly accounts for the dual inheritance (social and genetic) passed from parents to children. As part of this process I developed a set of polygenic scores (PGSs) for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) that are available to researchers with clearance to access the Add Health restricted data.
In other work, a few colleagues and I have a series of papers (1 2) focused on the origins and consequences of social stratification in educational outcomes based on resources such as social capital at home and at school.
And finally, I have a few papers that explore differences in the risk of dying young. There is arguably no more definitive outcome to study social stratification than death. Simply put, certain populations experience a higher risk of dying across the life course than others and these patterns (Link and Phelan 1995; Phelan and Link 2015) need to be understood if we as a society are to construct policies capable of reducing the gaps between the most and the least advantaged among us.