As a first-generation college student from rural West Virginia, Emily Johnson has questioned whether to pursue her interest in graduate school and career in social sciences research.
But she found reassurance at NextGenPop, an intensive two-week summer training program aimed at increasing diversity in the field of population science, hosted June 4-18 by the Cornell Population Center and the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.
“It’s not an opportunity that I take for granted to get to do a program like this, and the fact that I’m even thinking about Ph.D. programs is crazy,” said Johnson, a rising senior studying sociology at Ohio State University. “It’s been really affirming that this is what I want to do.”
Supported by the Population Association of America and a consortium of population research centers across the United States, the program is funded by a five-year National Institutes of Health grant for which Kelly Musick, professor of public policy and sociology and senior associate dean of research in the Brooks School, is co-principal investigator.
“Population scientists study changes in the composition and structure of populations that shape inequalities in health and well-being, with important implications for policy,” Musick said. “The population field, like a lot of academic fields, doesn’t fully reflect our population. Increasing its diversity brings in different questions and approaches – opening new lines of inquiry and new insights that matter for how we understand our social world.”
Over two weeks, 20 student fellows thinking about graduate school or careers in the social sciences – selected from more than 100 applicants – participated in seminars on population and policy issues including family change, fertility, immigration, health inequality, criminal justice and residential segregation.
The way people and even statutes or codes are counted is crucial to addressing systemic problems like the consequences of mass incarceration, which impacts everything from education and employment to fertility and voter turnout, said Bryan Sykes, a demographer and sociologist who will join Cornell’s faculty in the fall.
For example, he said, statistics touted a decade ago as evidence of progress in employment and graduation rates among young Black men looked significantly worse when adjusted to include people in prison or jail – a population excluded from conventional statistics that are based on household surveys.
“We’re talking about huge gaps here,” said Sykes, currently at the University of California, Irvine. “These differences illustrate just how profoundly ignoring our criminal legal system in America is affecting how we measure and understand social progress.”
NextGenPop fellows received training in research and data analysis and delivered research presentations, on topics ranging from maternal health to homelessness to environmental inequality. And they participated in professional development sessions with graduate students and faculty including Colleen Barry, dean of the Brooks School, who encouraged the students to draw from personal experience to drive and communicate their research programs.
Esther Colón Bermúdez, a recent graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, said her experience growing up with housing insecurity motivated her to work on housing policy.
“Not only the affordability but the quality of housing in Puerto Rico now needs to be addressed,” Colón Bermúdez said. “This program gives students the tools to be involved in this type of research to have a social impact, so it’s a really great opportunity.”
Cameron White ’24, of Atlanta, said disparities he saw in medical access and treatment following a car accident led him to study health care policy at Cornell. Learning from NextGenPop classmates and faculty with diverse backgrounds and perspectives has been empowering, he said.
“There’s been a lot of social capital being built, but also just a lot of encouragement and advocacy and validation from the mentors and students here,” White said. “It’s helped me see that there are many ways I can use this passion to make the change that I want to see.”
Johnson, who is interested in researching poverty and education inequality in Appalachia, a region she said is understudied, said NextGenPop had eased some of her concerns about graduate school and belonging in academia.
“As much as I’ve learned about a ton of different sociological and policy topics here,” she said, “it’s been awesome to meet everyone else and learn from them and their experiences.”