Abstract collage representing research.
Abstract collage repreenting research
Abstract collage representing research.

ISR's Next Generation Initiative

Donor-funded awards support promising graduate scholars early in their careers.

By Madeline Swanson | Art by Nate Bynum

At the Institute for Social Research (ISR), donor support has spurred graduate student research across campus, funding studies in social science, public policy, race and ethnic politics, and more. The Next Generation Initiative at ISR provides financial support to promising scholars at an early stage in their careers. These donor-funded awards catalyze innovative projects all while honoring the legacies of the pioneering researchers who came before.

The initiative originally began in the early 2000s as an umbrella program for graduate student awards. Over time, multiple awards were created to honor past founders of ISR, and eventually the Next Generation Initiative was born.

Donors have been crucial to the development of this program and have a huge impact on students at a make-or-break time in their careers, according to David Lam, director of the Institute for Social Research.

“These are students at a critical stage that are incredibly talented and have a lot of great ideas, but they really need some support to pay for a semester of a fellowship to finish their dissertation, to do some exploratory travel, or to help gather data,” Lam said. “It really helps them get finished with their degree and launch their careers as junior faculty.”

Lam said these awards can make a significant difference in students’ abilities to publish their research, continue their studies, and eventually pursue tenure track faculty positions.

“It’s the time in people’s careers when there’s a huge return on investment. For relatively modest amounts of money, donors can make a huge difference for these junior scholars.”

To learn more about the Next Generation Initiative and its impact on students, Leaders & Best sat down with four students whose research is supported by donor-funded awards. Learn more about their research and the impact of their awards below.


Sydney Carr, Political Science and Public Policy
Television intersectionality, television news, media and public attitudes towards Black women, political elites.

Sydney Carr and an abstract collage representing her research.The research area that I’m in is American politics, specifically race and ethnic politics. Right now I’m researching news coverage of Black women in the media and how that impacts American public attitudes towards them. I’m interested in to what extent Black women face a disadvantage within the political realm and how we can use their experiences within news media as a way to understand that. My dissertation project examines the ways in which news coverage surrounding Black women political elites differs from that of their counterparts and what implications that coverage has on American public opinion and attitudes.

How will your research change the world?

People don’t really pay a lot of scholarly or critical attention to the experiences of minority or disadvantaged groups. My goal is to add to this literature and put more knowledge and information out there about Black women in the media. I’m not only researching Black women because I am a Black woman myself, but also because Black women have been so dynamic in the political arena. They’re very politically engaged, yet we’ve seen that we don’t pay as much scholarly attention to them in the media. I want to provide more understanding about the huge implications that news can have on public opinion toward Black women political elites. I want my research to span not only political science journals, but I want it to be read by everyday people who watch news and who are becoming more influenced by news.

Why is this your passion?

What really makes me passionate is the idea that I can literally do research on anything that I enjoy within political science. I can create my own project, and that’s always appealed to me. Thinking about the many disadvantages that people of color and women of color have faced, I see it as very important and critical work because the voices of people of color and women of color are often left out of the scholarly space.

How are donors helping you realize your dream?

Research is expensive. The Hanes Walton, Jr. Endowment for Graduate Study in Racial and Ethnic Politics will allow me to do my larger dissertation project and put out a survey through the YouGov platform—a survey platform that’s well regarded within political science research. This award definitely alleviated a lot of funding concerns that I had for my dissertation project. It allowed me to start doing surveys at an earlier stage in my career, and having the money to do that was super helpful.

What’s next for you?

I ultimately would like to get a tenure track faculty position at a research-intensive university. I love teaching and mentoring, and I also love doing my research. I think that getting a faculty position will allow me to have the best of both worlds.


Sara Stein, Social Work and Clinical Psychology
Towards intentional relational wellbeing: The syndemic contributions of mental health, trauma exposure, and sociodemographic factors for risk for intimate partner violence victimization.

Sara Stein in an abstract collage representing her research.My research focuses on the prevention of intimate partner violence through identifying what creates risk for experiencing this type of violence. Past work has focused on women as a kind of passive victim in violent relationships. However, this research considers women as active subjects in their relationships and seeks to identify risk for experiencing intimate partner violence victimization to increase their agency in relationships. We conducted a randomized controlled trial where we followed women who have experience with intimate partner violence victimization over an eight-year period, assessing their exposure to trauma, mental health, and the emotional wellbeing of their children. This research is unique as we don’t tend to have longitudinal data that extends over such a long period of time.

How will your research change the world?

My intent is to give those who’ve experienced intimate partner violence, in particular women, a return to a place of power in their own lives and the ability to realize that there may be factors that increase risk for experiencing intimate partner violence. There may be some risk factors that elevate their risk for being in these situations, but there are things that they can do about it. It’s not just happening to them—they can take concrete steps to make life different and to make their relationship trajectories look different.

Why are you passionate about this work?

I’m also a psychotherapist, and I’m a trauma therapist. I have spent years working very closely with clients who have experienced a sense of being stuck as a result of this narrative. Seeing the up-close experiences of my complex trauma survivors as well as this narrative being very much embedded in our social system made me want to help change this trajectory of the conversation around domestic violence.

How are donors helping you realize your dream?

Donors have had a dramatic effect. This year, I’ve been able to dedicate myself entirely to my research and the development of these studies that have followed women over eight years to see what risk factors there are for experiencing violence over that time period. And without the Robert Kahn Fellowship for Scientific Study of Social Issues, it would have been very hard to complete this work. This award has allowed me to set a foundation in my research, which has set me up to secure this funding for two years to do this really exciting work. And without the award, there’s no way that I would have been able to do that.

What’s next for you?

I started a postdoctoral position at Michigan in August. I will be in that position for two years, and my hope is to become a faculty member on a tenure track that can continue to look at the risk factors for experiencing violence and begin to develop intervention programs that target these risk factors and the risk factors for the intergenerational transmission of trauma.


James Allen, Public Policy and Economics
How Overlap in the School and Farming Calendars Affects Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

James Allen in an abstract collage representing his research.My research looks at two calendars with near universal influence in the developing world—the school calendar and the farming calendar, and the overlap between them, which I define as the number of days in which school is scheduled and farming occurs. I asked the question, how does overlap in the school and farming calendars affect children’s educational outcomes? In much of the developing world, including in Sub-Saharan Africa, children from farming households are expected to work on their household farms, especially during the planting and harvest period when there is a strong need for agricultural labor, even if school is also scheduled. During these times, households have to choose whether to send their children to the fields or to the classroom. As a result, when the school and farming calendars overlap, I theorize that some children fall behind in school because they also have to fulfill their household obligations on the farm. I looked at a school calendar change in Malawi that shifted the school calendar unexpectedly and examined the effects on educational outcomes.

How will your research change the world?

To me, economic research in Sub-Saharan Africa has a clear aim of promoting economic development for Africa’s poor. Improving educational attainment in the region can improve millions of lives. Currently, Sub-Saharan Africa lags behind other regions in educational attainment and other development measures—like poverty and food security. But with an educated workforce, the region has enormous potential for economic growth. I hope that my research informs policymakers that the school calendar can be an effective and practical tool for increasing educational attainment in their countries and especially in rural areas.

Why is this your passion?

I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, West Africa, from 2010 to 2012. During that time, I lived in a remote community where everyone farmed. If I hosted a training session during the rainy season and the harvest, no one would show up because everyone was busy in the fields harvesting. If I held that same training when no one was farming during the dry season, I could get 30–40 people to show up. So I realized that it was really important that I adapted my teaching calendar to the local farming calendar and realized that it may be important for schools to do the same.

How are donors helping you realize your dream?

Donor funding has had a huge impact on my University of Michigan experience. Graduate students are often told to think big but are then forced to shy away from ambitious research due to lack of support. My Weinberg Graduate Student Award helped me hire a research assistant to assist with my data analysis. One task included searching the internet for African school calendars so that I am able to talk about the implications of my research for the whole region. Additionally, I received the Marshall Weinberg Population, Development and Climate Change Fellowship in 2018, which allowed me to present my school calendar work in South Africa and get valuable feedback from economists who live and work in the region. Those funds also allowed me to travel to a field research site in Mozambique to study how 2019’s Cyclone Idai (one of the deadliest cyclones in African history) affected households’ educational decisions for their children. These ambitious projects would not be possible without donor support. They have helped me to establish a strong foundation for my broader research agenda studying health and educational decision-making in Sub-Saharan Africa.

What’s next for you?

My doctoral research is only the start of what I hope is a decades-long career researching health and education in Sub-Saharan Africa, ideally as a professor at a university, where I can continue my research and teach students about why this kind of work is so important for our world.


Elizabeth Burland, Public Policy and Sociology
Post-secondary decision making; the role of family, school, and financial aid provision

Elizabeth Burland in an abstract collage representing her researchThe goal of the research is to understand how students navigate the post-high school transition. I’m looking at how they make decisions and how they use resources available to them to navigate their post-high school lives. It’s all about gaining the student perspective on that whole process. My particular population is low-income students who are high achieving—students that scored highly on the SATs and in their grades in high school. A lot of them do go on to college, but not all of them do. So I want to understand all of those transitions whether they choose to go to college or not.

How will your research change the world?

I hope it has an impact on how policies are made. We typically make them based on quantitative data—we evaluate policies, but we don’t often talk to students about what it is that they need. We don’t talk to students about what’s working and what’s not working. And I think this type of research has the potential to really shape policy, particularly in the areas of financial access to college. I think understanding from the student perspective, what their experience is like and what things are important to them, is essential to crafting both effective, but also efficient policies.

Why are you passionate about this work?

I’m passionate about research that affects policy. I believe that research should have a purpose and should help people. Students are navigating really complex times right now, and things are really hard for high school students transitioning into college. Whatever we can do to make that transition easier for students and actually meet their needs is what drives me to do this work and why I wanted to do this qualitative study.

How are donors helping you realize your dream?

Qualitative research is expensive. It often costs more money than quantitative research, and I couldn’t have done this research without funding. We pay our participants for their time and that’s super important to us, especially in this context because I’m talking to low-income students who have a lot of other responsibilities in their lives, and we’re asking them to take two hours out of their day. Without some funding to be able to make the transition to virtual research and to be able to spend the time talking to participants and the funding for other expenses, like incentives and interview transcription, I couldn’t have done it. The Sarri Family Fellowship for Research on Educational Attainment of Children in Low Income Families made a huge difference in my Michigan experience.

What’s next for you?

No matter what I’m doing, I do want to continue doing research on this transition period for students. A lot of my other research focuses on financial aid policy and understanding how students make decisions about college. I’m trying to understand how these different financial aid policies impact their decisions and how we can better target financial aid policies in ways that benefit students. I expect to continue this work into the future, whether that’s as a faculty member or as a researcher at another institution.

For more information about supporting graduate students through the Next Generation Initiative, click here.

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