Sociology and Criminology graduate student, Kendall Riley, has witnessed firsthand the profound affects incarceration has on families while tutoring a child whose parents oscillated in and out of prison. She recognized how incarceration can drastically alter one’s life trajectory, especially the lives of Black children and families. This experience pushed Riley into her current doctoral research where she explores how the legal system can affect a multitude of health outcomes.
Riley studies the collateral consequences, or the “spillover effects,” of incarceration and seeks to understand incarceration as a social determinant of health that impacts the individual and their family. Her goal is to build foundational and interdisciplinary approaches to understand these persistent racial disparities.
“My research is needed because of how far reaching the effects of incarceration are in the US,” Riley said. “I study how incarceration and stress across a lifetime affects people’s health, especially health problems they might not recognize in the moment.”
Riley’s research touches on the prevalent hardships people face after serving time in prison. Former convicts struggle with the transition to life after being released which takes a toll on their health and well-being. Mark Berg, Riley’s academic advisor and professor in the Sociology and Criminology department, emphasizes how harmful the long-lasting effects are for people who have served time in prison.
“In some ways, people who come out of prison serve another sentence when they leave,” Berg explained. “People who serve time don’t live as long and suffer from higher rates of diseases. We have a mountain of research that shows there is something about the in carceral experience that has lasting, acute effects on people’s health once they leave prison.”
Riley’s research investigates these issues by using blood-based biomarkers that indicate major health problems before they even arise. Using these types of measures, researchers can determine how the legal system—and other forms of hardship— become embedded in ways that are often missed when relying on people’s reports of their health at that moment in time. This biological perspective helps determine the correlation between prison confinement and health, as well as the stressors that would otherwise be unrecognizable.
“Kendall is involved in a very innovative, exciting, and new line of interdisciplinary work of health and criminology,” Berg said. “She is able to quickly sort through and identify the key themes of this research and aims to address these problems in meaningful ways.”
In the summer of 2021, Riley began the strenuous process of applying for the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP). With a combination of feedback from her advisors and mentors, as well as the college’s Grad Success Program grant writing workshops, Riley became one of three applicants from the university to win this well-deserved financial support.
“This fellowship will provide her important resources to boost an already promising young academic career,” Berg said. “The research she is doing with the NSF funds has the potential to make important contributions to literature on health and deviance, specifically the implications of social stressors for physical health and well-being.”
The GRFP offers three years of academic assistance and a stipend to allow graduate students to focus on their research. Riley plans to allocate funds into programs that will build her skillset and assist in her future research.
“The GRFP gave me an opportunity to show what I wanted to do with my research, where I fit into the field, and what I wanted to do going forward,” Riley explained. “It also gives me the opportunity to explore what I wanted to be as a mentor and as a future leader in the STEM sciences.”
Mentorship is a common theme throughout her collegiate career—one that helped Riley become an NSF GRFP fellow. The academic assistance she has received has motivated Riley to allocate more time into developing a program that will create more opportunities for undergraduate students to get involved in and learn about research going on within the Department of Sociology and Criminology.
“It’s really important to me to mentor and inspire BIPOC and first-generation students, so I plan to devote part of my attention to do that,” Riley said. “The mentorship program I’m envisioning will have a workshop component where other graduate students, post-docs, and faculty members can work with undergraduate students to create the myriad materials needed for graduate school applications.”
The program would emphasize the importance of preparedness for undergraduate students. Many students enter graduate school without prior research experience and can be overwhelmed with the amount of work and the type of skills needed to conduct research at the graduate level.
“I also want to create a second component of the mentorship program so that undergrads get a chance to work one on one with a faculty member, an advanced graduate student, or post-doctoral fellow to gain tangible research skills.”
This mentorship program will allow Riley to use her experience, knowledge, and position to impact and give confidence to younger first-generation and BIPOC students interested in the field of research who are looking to create a difference like her.
“We can always use more diversity in the university research setting so I’m really excited to play a role in preparing the next group of diverse up-and-coming STEM scholars.”