This past semester Nykia and Shannon had the pleasure of sitting down with Regina Baker, PSC Research Associate and Assistant Professor of Sociology.
Shannon: What brought you to Penn?
Regina: Aside from the job, I felt that people wanted me here. The resources at Penn were also a draw, and the PSC was especially appealing to me. It’s also nice that our faculty represents a wide range of expertise and research interests. I’ve had experiences in departments that were more quantitative or more qualitative, but it’s great to see a good mix of people representing different parts of that spectrum. I think about potential students with multiple interests or whose ideas might change, and it’s nice to know that no matter what, there’s likely to be somebody who can speak to whatever that interest may be.
Nykia: How did you discover your field of study? How does it relate to demography/population studies?
Regina: That takes me back to when I was an undergrad student. I remember in my first semester as a freshman, I wanted to take an introductory sociology class, but I couldn’t because they were all full. The following semester, I got into a class called “Social Problems,” and thought, “This is what I need to do!” I like to tell the story that it’s not every day you have a freshman that pulls an all-nighter writing an essay for a class, and is excited about it. We had to do a research paper on a topic covered in class, and mine focused on poverty. I remember I had only 30 minutes of sleep that night! The next morning, I told my professor/pre-major advisor, that I was up all night working on this paper and enjoyed it. So right then, I decided to declare sociology as my major.
More broadly, I was intrigued by society, how things are the way they are, the question of inequality, systemic issues, and sociology, as a discipline, spoke to me in that way. My school also had this Program in Leadership and Community Service, and each class had a community service or community engagement aspect. It was great because the abstract ideas and theories I was learning in class were brought to life in the day-to-day experiences I had interacting with different populations in the community.
Also, early on in my undergraduate years I was really interested in research methods, research questions, and the best way to answer them. I completed an undergraduate research experience at UT Austin’s Population Research Center co-sponsored by UT’s Sociology department. It was during that program that I got my first taste of graduate school. I was enrolled in a graduate-level course called Minority Demography and also had both a faculty and graduate student mentor. I realized what you can do in graduate school, and it solidified my interest in sociology. While I went on to pursue a masters in social work, I knew I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. one day. When I was a social work student my concentration was Community Empowerment and Program Development, so I had lots of experiences interacting with people, while at the same time, I was studying the macro-social side of things and thinking about policy issues. My interest was poverty, and I was disappointed that there wasn’t much emphasis on poverty, even though the very mission of social work is to help oppressed populations, such as those who are poor. So, I created my own independent study focusing on poverty. I created my own syllabus for the class, and I completed a case study on local anti-poverty organization. It reinforced my ideas about the relationship between sociology and poverty. Long story short, I went to Duke, got my Ph.D. in sociology, and now I’m here!
"The classroom can be a true incubator for change when you are exposing young people to different ideas and experiences as part of their learning."
Shannon: How important have mentors been in your career trajectory?
Regina: Mentors have been a big deal for me. As an undergrad, I was one of those students who was quiet and reflective unless something really got my blood boiling, then I would speak up. One of my professors once whispered to me, “Regina, you need to speak up.” He recognized that I was a good writer, and had many big ideas, but I rarely shared them in class. Having a good mentor who gave me helpful feedback and positive reinforcement and pushed me to express my written ideas orally definitely helped me immensely.
Throughout undergrad and graduate school, my mentors recognized potential in me that I didn’t even see. (Okay, now I am getting all teary-eyed!) My mentors were also from various backgrounds, too, and so I thought, “If people from different walks of life are saying the same thing, then they must be onto something.” Good mentorship definitely helped me find my own voice. Having mentors who did not sugarcoat things, and “kept it real” was important, too.
I also recently had the privilege of writing letters for the promotion files of two of my undergraduate mentors. It was great getting the opportunity to reflect on my undergraduate mentors and how they helped shape my trajectory.
Shannon: Tell us about your teaching experience.
Regina: I had been a TA for various courses before I came here, but taught my own course for the first time here at Penn. I have taught a Poverty and Inequality (a freshman seminar) several times. I also teach The Rich and Poor and am currently teaching Intro to Sociological Research.
I like teaching freshmen seminars because they remind me of the class I took as a freshman that got me interested in sociology and what I am doing now. The class is smaller, less intimidating, and students get the time and space to talk about big ideas. The freshman in my seminar are bright-eyed and eager to learn because they want to be in the class, not because they have to be. It’s a different and nice teaching experience.
In my classes, I try to incorporate different applied learning activities. For example, we’ll look at the U.S. poverty threshold and calculate how much more you would have to make working full-time at average minimum wage in order to meet the official poverty threshold. (The answer is 52 hours a week!) I then have my students imagine they are a single parent of two children in Philadelphia and have them make a monthly budget based on this income and various categories (e.g. housing, food, insurance, transportation, etc.) For my methods class, I have students doing mini methods projects reflecting various types of methods we are learning. Applied activities help make it a true learning experience. The classroom can be a true incubator for change when you are exposing young people to different ideas and experiences as part of their learning.
Shannon: What advice would you give someone in training to be a researcher, specifically a postdoc or someone just finishing their PhD?
Regina: One thing I would say is be open-minded with your research interests. Be open to different opportunities because you never know what might come of it. You might think you are going to do this one thing, but then you might go to a talk that raises factors or implications for your research that you never thought about, or leads you in a different direction altogether. It’s also important to connect with others, as you might learn something. If you have a one-track mind, and aren’t open to different ideas and opinions, it can stunt your growth. Also, for new PhDs and postdocs, I would say in terms of your work and research, do work that you enjoy. Always have some aspect of your work that you love and are passionate about. I sometimes have to ask myself: “Now, why did you get into this field to begin with?!” And it motivates me. That helps you get through rough days, because we all have them. Try not to lose sight of that. Try not to lose sight of your purpose and the purpose of doing the work that you do.
Nykia: What projects are you working on now?
Regina: I am looking at how micro- and macro-level factors matter for individual poverty and how poverty helps shapes regional inequality, with a focus on the U.S. South. I consider several factors, such as family demographics, economic structure, power resources, racial/ethnic composition, and historical racism. When we think about disparities across place, we can’t just look at individual characteristics. As a researcher, I want to know what it is about a particular place that helps further our understanding of poverty there and inequality across place.
I’ve also considered ways to quantitatively measure historical systems of racism so that I can examine its relationship with contemporary poverty in the South. There is some awesome extant research that examines the “legacy of slavery,” and I build on this literature by also considering other historical institutions of racism. Specifically, I developed a scale of “historical racial regimes” (HRR) that includes state-level measures of slavery, sharecropping, and White resistance during Jim Crow. I find that states with the highest HRR score tend to have higher rates of poverty and the greatest white-black poverty gaps. I am using this scale to empirically test the relationship between HRR and contemporary Black and White poverty in the South.
Now, that I’m wrapping up these projects from my dissertation, I am looking forward to spending more time on other projects that expand on my interests in poverty and economic inequality among children and families. For example, one current project examines child poverty prevalences, penalties, and risks in the U.S. (with David Brady, UC-Riverside and Ryan Finnigan, UC-Davis). Another project with Deadric Williams (Nebraska-Lincoln) examines race, family structure, cumulative risks, and poverty in efforts to theorize a structural racism approach in studying family inequality. I am also working with Janeria Easley (Post-doc here at Penn) to create a more holistic measure of social origin to examine intergenerational mobility and variation across families.
"Try not to lose sight of your purpose and the purpose of doing the work that you do."