Combination for Success: Professor brings influential research coupled with exceptional teaching
Paula Fomby, assistant professor of sociology and enthusiastic researcher, joined the Sociology Department faculty in 2007. Both the university and Fomby have benefited from her hire—her students get an inside look at the research process and its specific findings, and she has the opportunity to grow at a university that values and prioritizes its research pursuits.
Fomby co-authored an article with Andrew Cherlin titled “Family Instability and Child Well-Being” for the April 2007 edition of American Sociological Review. She says, “Most of my research has considered how parents’ choices and behaviors influence the choices their children will make. Sometimes the mechanisms aren’t totally straightforward or immediate, but there’s little doubt that parents are the best chance for teaching kids to be happy, healthy and smart.” Fomby has received several grants from the National Institutes of Health at Johns Hopkins University, some of which follow her to Denver.
The research endeavor began when she read an article that reported kids who experienced instability in their family structure had a variety of behavioral problems at school and engaged in risky sexual behavior. “I wondered whether children were responding to changes in their family structure, or whether those changes and the kids’ behavior problems were both symptoms of problems in how families were relating to each other,” says Fomby.
The research design was novel in that it made use of publicly available data (two generations of it) from a national longitudinal study. Additionally, the study’s findings came as a surprise because of the racial differences noticed in one speculative piece. Fomby sees no obvious explanation why their study showed that the cognition and behavior of black children were less affected by household instability than with Caucasian children. However, Fomby states research has shown possible reasons for the findings—it may be because black children are more connected to their communities through churches, neighborhood connections and extended family so they can overcome instability easier. It’s also possible that black children face more stress, poverty and low-income problems, so they build a resistance to such hardships.
Exploring these hypotheses is the next step for Fomby; now that she’s begun the analysis, more research demands are developing. The research both challenges and excites her: “First it raised more questions than it answered. It gave rise to theoretically important research questions that could be answered with data from the real world.”
Fomby believes her research complements her ability to teach. “Teaching and research have a great symbiotic relationship in that the focused thinking in research lends itself to better teaching...you bring research to the class and give your students the opportunity to reach a whole new level of understanding. At the same time, learning to describe concepts clearly in the classroom carries over to research and writing.”
As a top research institution, UC Denver propels its reputation by welcoming new faculty like Fomby. She says, “UCD’s commitment to our urban community means that I can conduct research locally that will have real significance to our students.”