Faculty Spotlights: Feinian Chen (by Yu Guo), Dana Fisher (by Anya Galli), & Christina Prell (by Jonathan Jackson)


Both new-comers to this university and both Chinese, Feinian and I immediately clicked with each other when we first met as advisor and research assistant. We started to build a relationship which would later become more like a friendship. A 20-year-old girl studying  alone in a foreign country – she said she was once there, too.  So she really empathizes with me, and never hesitated to offer me her genuine concerns as well as professional advice. I feel comfortable communicating with her, sometimes even about some personal issues.

I was very anxious and confused during the first semester, and I told Feinian how hard it was to decide my specialty areas or to find an exact topic to research upon. Since then, Feinian has been giving me the advice which would resonate through all our communication. She always tells me one thing: one’s research interest can never be separated from one’s personal experience and you should always pursue what you are passionate about. She would always use herself as a good example.

Before she came to Maryland, Feinian led a 5-year NIH research project on the health implications of grandparents caring for grandchildren in China. Feinian herself was raised up by her loving grandparents. Later on, both her parents and parents-in-law also came all the way from China to help caring for her two children.  While she feels that she is the largest beneficiary of the love and selfless devotion of two generations of grandparents, she has always wondered what it means and does for the grandparents.  Indeed, Feinian’s fascination with intergenerational relationship and how it changes in societies undergoing rapid socioeconomic changes began when she was a graduate student. . Yet earlier on, she focused more on the “middle generation”, i.e. the adult children. Now, however, her passion shifts more toward the aging parental generation. In her own words, “personal experience, research interests, and academic life, they all kind of come together at some point.”

When asked about what she is looking forward to doing in the future as a sociologist, Feinian answered, “I do not make ten-year plans, but I do make 5-year plans.” She has mainly been doing intergenerational studies on China so far. Now she is considering expanding her research agenda to other cultures and contexts. For example, she has begun a project on racial-ethnic health disparities among grandparents in the U.S.. At the same time, she is starting another NIH funded study on women in the Philippines, which again features family relationships and health trajectories.

As for Feinian’s personal life, it may suffice to know that she is happily married and has two lovely children, a six-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. And she is very pleased to move to the DC area, being united with her husband and enjoying the great diversity of this metropolitan area.

DANA FISHER by Anya Galli

As a student in the Introduction to Qualitative Methods seminar this semester, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know one of our newest faculty members, Dr. Dana Fisher. I recently had the opportunity to talk to her a bit more about her career and plans for her work at UMD.

Fisher began her position at UMD in Spring, 2011 after a previous position in the Sociology Department at Columbia University. She currently holds two NSF grants: one for the Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks project, which looks at how climate policy is carried out in the US, and another on urban stewardship and regreening in New York City. She is currently working to establish the new Center for Society and the Environment at UMD, which will house both projects. Fisher describes her research as directed toward the goal of understanding policy making broadly through a number of foci. She is interested in understanding “how everyday citizens try to express themselves politically and engage in the political process” (looking at activists, protests and NGOs, for example), as well as policy processes and networks related to environmental issues.  Much of her work has focused on climate change, which provides an opportunity to look at policy making issues across local, state, national, and international scales. Big questions in Fisher’s research revolve around citizen involvement and whether it makes a difference in policy-making, and how/if policies end up affecting real changes in society and the environment. She will be teaching and undergraduate course in the department on environmental sociology, and hopes to integrate environmental issues into her graduate-level courses as well. In addition to teaching the qualitative methods sequence in our department, she plans to teach graduate seminars on activism and social movements, as well as a course on globalization and civil society.

Fisher’s interest in environmental precedes her work in the field of Sociology: after receiving her undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies and East Asian Studies from Princeton University, she lobbied in Washington, DC and worked in a California think tank before heading to University of Wisconsin, Madison for her PhD in Sociology. Her initial goal of continuing to do environmental work after graduate school focused on returning to research and think tank work. However, she says that the exposure to Sociology as a broader discipline she received during her training at Madison convinced her that the methodological tools and possibility to create change were greater in an academic career. Mentorship from faculty at Madison was a key part of Fisher’s graduate school experience. Coming in with a cohort of 41, Fisher was one of a few students with limited background in Sociology, and she says she found it “dehumanizing” to take remedial courses during her first years in the program- by the end of her second year she says she had found an “amazing community of students and faculty” through her courses in environmental sociology and social movements. she recalls weekly academic talks after which faculty and graduate students would gather to socialize and listen to live music- an example of the kind of supportive community she would like to see fostered within our department at UMD.

During our conversation Fisher offered some advice to current graduate students. On the “conventional” side, she encourages us to “take advantage of working with faculty and developing faculty connections,” noting that mentorship was “invaluable” in her decision to become and sociologist and the process of learning how to be a sociologist. She also emphasized the importance of publishing meaningful work: “you’re in grad school so you can be your own scholar,” she says, and “without publishing your work it doesn’t count.” On the less conventional side, Fisher emphasized the importance of maintaining balance in our lives. “It’s not possible to be a sociologist 24/7…you end up burning out.” She says that her most creative work happens when she has a clear mind and encourages graduate students to make schedules that allow us to do our work in addition to “specifically distinct and separate” activities.

In her non-sociology hours, Fisher enjoys spending time with her family and 4 year old daughter Margot, who keeps her very busy. She also enjoys doing Pilates and gardening. She is looking forward to planting a tomato garden in her yard, which isn’t something she had space for while living in NYC. Fisher says she likes living in the DC metro area because it’s a “real city” where she has access to good public schools and a house with a yard but can still easily get to downtown. Being here, she says, is “really exciting.”

CHRISTINA PRELL by Jonathan Jackson

Recently I had the opportunity of interviewing one of the new members of our faculty, Dr. Christina Prell.

Dr. Prell is the youngest of two and is now a mother of two children.  Her son, Lucas, is just five months old and her daughter, Sophie, is four years old. Dr. Prell is originally from Maryland, so accepting a position at College Park was a bit of a homecoming. She was born in Silver Spring and grew up in Damascus, Maryland.  However, she spent her teenage years in suburban Philadelphia and has since moved around.

Her college years were spent at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where she majored in English Literature and minored in Fine Arts.  She aspired to be an artist but decided that was not practical, so she went to Rennselear Polytechnic, where she earned a masters and PhD in communication and rhetoric.  While her advanced degrees are not in sociology, the practicality of social science appealed to her and drew her to look at virtual communities and social networks.  When she became a professor in England, these research interests made her a better fit in the sociology department.

Dr. Prell ended up in England because her husband, a native of Austria, got a job in Leeds.  When discussing her past life in England, she looks back on it fondly while also acknowledging the benefits of being back in the U.S.  She misses pubs, tea bags and the lack of dependency on cars.  That being said, she appreciates being around Americans again and not having to constantly deal with cultural barriers which many people experience as expatriots.

Her favorite thing about the sociology department so far is their seriousness about research and the proactive can-do spirit of many of her colleagues.  She enjoys the many ongoing discussions among faculty members about how they can collaborate and work together on research projects.  She also likes how the department is so close to Washington and all its museums.

When Dr. Prell is not working, she enjoys running long distance and has even participated in marathons.  Unfortunately, she cannot run in any marathons right now due to an injury, but she still applies the lessons of perseverance and endurance that she has learned from previous races.  In addition to long distance running, she also enjoys Indian curries and Tex-Mex.  When she has time for leisure reading, she likes fantasy series such as “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” “Twilight,” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Currently, Dr. Prell is finishing up two books on the history, theory and methodology of social networks.  She was recently awarded the Dean’s Initiative Award to research social networks and natural resource management.

Hopefully, you will get the chance to meet Dr. Prell.  She brings a unique perspective to the department and looks forward to meeting everyone!

Yu, Anya, & Jonathan are all 1st year graduate students.

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