A Conversation with CHASP Faculty Fellow Dr. Debra Umberson

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A Conversation with CHASP Faculty Fellow Dr. Debra Umberson

November 2018

By Amelia Hetherington (@ameliahtweets)
Center for Health and Social Policy Ambassador

Amelia Hetherington is a first-year Master of Public Affairs candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a 2018 CHASP Ambassador.

CHASP Faculty Fellow Dr. Debra Umberson is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. 

Amelia recently spoke with Dr. Umberson about her career path and her current work.


AMELIA HETHERINGTON: Please tell me a little about your background and how you ended up at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) and the Population Research Center (PRC).

DEBRA UMBERSON: I was always interested in social determinants of health. I studied gerontology as an undergraduate, and then got my master’s in social work. While working on my social work internships, I came to realize I was especially interested in "why" questions when working with clients—why and how their problems emerged in the first place, and how life stressors contributed to their personal problems and health concerns. I did an interdisciplinary post-doc in the Social Environment and Health program at the University of Michigan and that really set me on an interdisciplinary path in my work. One of the main reasons I came to UT was to get involved in the PRC, specifically for the interdisciplinary work being done on health and demography. That was many years ago now, of course!

AH: Can you speak about your current research?

DU: I study social ties and health, with particular attention to marital and family relationships. I am especially interested in race, gender, and sexuality differences in relationship dynamics and in the impact of relationships on health. One of my recent papers focuses on racial disparities in the death of family members. This study shows, for example, that black Americans are 3 times more likely to lose a mother before the age of 10. Black Americans are also much more likely than whites to lose a child; about 3 times more likely to lose a child by age 30 and the race gap in risk of losing a child grows even wider as people age. We also find that black Americans are more likely to lose more family members, and these losses have strong effects on health.

AH: How do you see the PRC contributing to your research, the research of those involved, and the UT community?

DU: First, the PRC is home to many prominent social scientists, so it provides a very stimulating and creative environment for doing research. The staff here are very successful in supporting researchers in obtaining funding and putting their research into action. The second strength is the analytic tools, the data resources available to the researchers. The sort of third leg to the stool is how the PRC fosters intellectual community. There is a great training program available for graduate students through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which allows them to learn these skills and receive funding, rather than just serving as a Teacher’s Assistant.

AH: How does the research from the PRC reach the public? How do you see this effectively influencing policy?

DU: There is a big emphasis on the ability to “translate” research into easily digestible summaries. That’s where our media office, and CHASP, do a really good job. I think everyone wins when researchers are doing their research, and those who are interested in policy translate the findings. Because you need those who are able to pitch the findings well, those who visualize how they can change our social and health landscapes, and it’s not necessarily the authors who are best situated to do that.

AH: Do you see the PRC continuing and upholding its standard of excellence?

DU: Absolutely. The talent is what really makes the PRC one of the leading centers of its kind. For example, Karen Fingerman does amazing work on aging, and David Yeager is on the cutting edge of research on mindset interventions for adolescents. Joe Potter’s research on women’s reproductive health and how it’s been affected by the closure of women’s health clinics in Texas has been cited in Supreme Court cases. There are really exciting, innovative things happening at the PRC. There are specialized research areas in which we really excelling, and our scholars are doing research at the forefront of their fields.


Debra Umberson, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology, Director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and CHASP Faculty Fellow. Her research focuses on social factors that influence population health with a particular emphasis on aging and life course change, marital and family ties, and gender and racial variation in health disparities. Umberson received her Ph.D. and Master of Arts in Sociology from Vanderbilt University, a Master of Social Work and Bachelor of Arts in Gerontology from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Amelia Hetherington is a first-year Master of Public Affairs candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a 2018 CHASP Ambassador. She spent the previous five years working in domestic violence and sexual assault service provision. Hetherington is passionate about improving the coordination among local, state and federal policies to provide meaningful supports to survivor and immigrant communities. After LBJ, she hopes to re-enter social services from the policy perspective.