MENTOR SPOTLIGHT | MARCH 2017
Department: School of Social Welfare
Describe your work in a few sentences that we can all understand: My research aims to understand financial inclusion and how the financial system can be redesigned to better serve young people and families living in poverty. This means that I study how a young person comes to own something like a checking or savings account. And, once they get that account, whether they can use it to help manage their day-to-day finances. Another important part of my research is how the financial system, like banks and credit unions, can offer better products and services. For example, a young person might not be able to open a savings account if the fees are too high. Or, a bank or credit union might deny them from opening an account if they have a bad credit record. Owning some sort of bank account is almost necessary in our 21st century economy: imagine—as many people do—using cash to make all your purchases or pay your rent. The financial system needs to be more inclusive and to better serve young people and families in poverty.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research?
A: I first became interested in the area of financial inclusion or access when I was working as a clinical social worker in the juvenile justice system. Many of the young men that I worked with were being discharged and planning to live independently after spending most of their lives in some sort of state system of care (e.g., foster care, juvenile justice). One of my responsibilities was to help them get copies of important legal documents, such as their birth certificates, social security numbers, and drivers’ licenses or state identification. These documents are really important because you can’t open a bank account or apply for a credit card without them. So, without these documents, young men wouldn’t be able to use the financial products and services that many of us take for granted. Another of my responsibilities was to help them apply for jobs, find apartments, and learn how to budget—making sure they knew the basics of managing their day-to-day finances.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: Students can learn so many things by doing research, which aren’t necessarily taught in classes. For example, the students on my research team now are learning hands-on, practical skills like collecting and analyzing data, writing research reports, and communicating with funders. A social work student eventually may work for a nonprofit agency that needs to provide evidence on a new program to their board of directors. After their experiences with doing research, this student is better prepared to use their agency’s data to assess the evidence for the new program and to present this evidence to their board of directors. I also strive to give students opportunities to see research from start to finish: the process of research. Once students have participated in a project from beginning to end, they tend to have more knowledge of and appreciation for all the work that went into a brief, 5-page report.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: For me, one of the most exciting parts of research is the ability to make an impact on policy—redistributing power and bending the socioeconomic context in favor of households that are marginalized and oppressed. I’ve had opportunities to make impacts in smaller ways, such as by being invited to talk about financial inclusion to policymakers and having my research cited as grounds for introducing federal legislation. And I’ve had opportunities to collaborate with think tanks and consumer advocacy groups that do really great and thoughtful work, and have helped me to more clearly communicate the implications of my research findings. I hope to make impacts across my career and provide policymakers with the best available evidence for developing policies related to financial inclusion.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: My advice for students is to consider research opportunities even if you don’t think you have enough experience or expertise. I often hear students saying that they don’t have enough experience or expertise to meaningfully add to a research team. This isn’t true at all! I really appreciate the enthusiasm, interests, and new perspectives that undergraduate students bring to a research team. I am always looking for students who are willing and eager to learn, can meet deadlines, and take initiative. When I am looking for undergraduate students to join my research team, these are the qualities and characteristics that are more important—not their experience or expertise.
Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: Research never goes as expected! In fact, that is one of the interesting things about research. Even though I start a project by developing a very detailed, thoughtful, and rigorous research plan, this plan tends to evolve along the way. This is a part of the process of doing research. It is very normal to have difficulty with data or to uncover findings that you didn’t expect. These setbacks aren’t so bad when you think of them as normal.
For me, my plans tend to grow in size and ambition as I recognize additional opportunities to leverage research for making a policy impact. For example, on a current project, my research team and I developed an advisory board that includes representatives from think tanks and consumer advocacy groups and whose work focuses on financial inclusion. We weren’t required and didn’t have to develop an advisory board. This new and unexpected development has meant that we have more people to communicate with: 10 extra people helping to develop surveys, giving feedback on reports, and suggesting ideas for new research directions. And it takes a lot of work to communicate well with an advisory board. However, it is also amazing to have 10 experts in the field of financial inclusion who are willing to take time out of their day and to help improve the research—their contributions make the project 10 times better.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: My family and I love being active and outdoors. We love the outdoor pool in the summertime, piles of leaves in the fall, and skating on icy sidewalks in the winter. My kids are really interested in learning new things and helping right now: trying new foods, learning about animals, baking cookies. So my partner and I probably bake cookies two times a week so our kiddos have opportunities to help with measuring the ingredients and watching the cookies bake in the oven! We also don’t let our kids eat many sweet foods, so my partner and I end up eating a lot of these cookies ourselves… Spending time with my family is my top priority.
And, to be honest, I also like my work and I spend a lot of time doing research. Especially during the semester, classes and meetings can take up a lot of time. So, that means there is less time for research during the work day. I usually wake up early and respond to emails, and then my partner and I work together to feed our kids their breakfast and get them ready for their days. I work in my office in-between daycare drop-off and pick-up. After everyone has eaten dinner (and baked cookies; and I recognize here that I’m also hinting to gender identities and cultural norms around the careful and often unrealistic balancing of work and family) and the kids go to bed, I sit down at my computer and work into the evening. I work in the early mornings and late evenings during the weekends.
I am sharing this because it takes time and hard work to do good research and make an impact on policy, and so this is an honest valuation of my time.