Sociology professor inspires next generation of researchers

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Dr. Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, or Dr. K as his students call him, teaches sociology at Missouri State University.

Outside of the classroom, his research focuses on health disparities among older adults and how race plays a role in quality of life.

“I was fascinated by the fact that aging and health are not merely biological processes,” said Dr. Sherman-Wilkins. “They are, certainly, biological processes, but both of them are influenced by the larger social world.”

The Institute for Citizens & Scholars named the assistant professor of sociology one of 11 Mellon Emerging Faculty Leaders (MEFL) for 2021. The award recognizes research on the study of culture, equity, and education, and faculty who balance research, teaching, and service.

“I was really happy to receive that award. It means a lot,” said Dr. Sherman-Wilkins. “It’s a validation of the work and effort that I put into my job.”

Dr. Sherman-Wilkins received $17,000 to help fund another research project, which includes students.

“We call ourselves the Health Equity Research Collective or HERC,” said Dr.Sherman-Wilkins.

The group consists of seven undergraduates who started meeting last semester and working on their own research projects.

One of HERC’s studies focuses on the well-being of students on campus.

“The experience of being a student of color or a student who might experience food insecurity,” said Dr. Sherman-Wilkins. “Dealing with all these different stressors that a disproportionate number of our historically excluded groups experience. How does that impact their health and well-being?”

Kayla Curry is a senior at MSU and is a member of HERC.

“Right now, we are working on creating the survey and then recruiting students to take the survey,” she said. “To find out what resources or policy changes the university could enact in order to help students that might be struggling.”

This is one of four research papers HERC will present at the Midwest Sociological Society in Chicago in April. The other studies focus on sleep patterns across race; physical activity across race, ethnicity, gender and class; and social integration and health in older adults.

Studying health is a topic Dr. Sherman-Wilkins says is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you look at the data, it’s pretty clear that communities of color are more likely to get sick with COVID-19,” he said. “When they do get sick, they have more severe illness, and unfortunately, they are more likely to die of COVID-19. So, it’s been a real public health crisis.”

Dr. Sherman-Wilkins says it’s also important to consider how communities of color find healing and strength through resilience and community while continuing to push for long-lasting results on a greater scale.

“We need to keep putting that pressure on policymakers to be able to make these large societal changes,” said Dr. Sherman-Wilkins.

His students hope their findings can be the first step toward helping people understand these issues and move toward making those societal changes.

“I don’t want my research to exist in a vacuum,” said Curry. “It’s realizing that sociology isn’t the start and end of this research.”

Although still young himself, Dr. Sherman-Wilkins is proud to share his passion for sociology with the next generation of researchers, who will help translate the data and their findings into real-world solutions.

“I am someone who firmly believes that to whom much is given, much is expected, and maybe I have the arrogance to believe that I can actually make a difference.”



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