Six Scholars Join the Human Development and Social Policy Doctoral Program

Six Scholars Join the Human Development and Social Policy Doctoral Program

annenberg_fall.jpgCommunity and a “strong sense of mutuality” are what make the Human Development and Social Policy doctoral program so special, Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio told incoming students during Wildcat Welcome 2020.

“It's on all of us, myself included, to try to find ways to nurture that mutuality – amongst graduate students, amongst faculty, and between graduate students – in a world in which we're mainly just squares on screens for a while,” Figlio said.

Six scholars joined the program this fall, including Lara Altman, Varun Devakonda, Kanika Dhanda, Fortunate Kelechi Ekwuruke, Zina Noel, and Karla Thomas. Their research interests range from toxic stress and brain development to education reform in developing countries.

The Human Development and Social Policy program is chaired by education sociologist Cynthia Coburn, who was recently elected to the National Academy of Education – one of the highest honors in the field.

Coburn, professor of human development and social policy and of learning sciences, is a world-renowned expert on partnerships between researchers and those working in the field – including teachers, principals, and district leaders.

Her work, which has helped spark a renaissance in the field of educational research, focuses on understanding how schools and systems change. As they do, she wants to know how the new practices, rules, and roles weave through the system and make their way into classrooms.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted in-person learning, “we have a greater need­ – and greater difficulty – making connections with one another this year,” Coburn said during the welcome. “Intentionality is going to be key.”

Faculty and students in the Human Development and Social Policy doctoral program study development and transitions across the life span with a key focus on reducing economic, education, and health inequities.

Their policy research examines how policies are developed, how they change incentives and infrastructures, and how they influence the way we behave.

The questions they tackle are too big for any one discipline, so students learn how to incorporate insights from anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology into their work. Faculty and students consider themselves “boundary-spanners” or people who can contribute to and enrich their chosen discipline while using insights from other fields.

“We’re a learning organization that is constantly thriving and trying to be better,” Figlio said. “As an organization that’s ethical, equitable, and inclusive, we’re better than when I started as a faculty member. And my hope is that 13 years from now we will be a much better organization still.”

Learn more about our newest Human Development and Social Policy students:

Laura AltmanLara Altman is interested in studying toxic stress to better understand how structural and community factors like poverty, racism, and violence impact health and academic achievement. “I’m interested in systems-level approaches that buffer the impact of stress, particularly for women and girls,” she says. Altman currently leads a statewide collaborative focused on trauma-informed policymaking, organizational capacity building, and research dissemination – all to reduce childhood adversity and promote healing.

Research interests: impact of stress and childhood adversity for women/girls, including exposure to violence; two-generation approaches; health equity; translating science of stress into poverty policy.

VarunVarun Devakonda was most recently a middle school math teacher in a high-needs school in Miami. He is interested in studying how poverty and related environmental factors can influence brain development/learning.

Research interests: Poverty and related influences on learning, school outcomes, adolescent development and neuroimaging methodology. 

kanikaKanika Dhanda is from India and currently lives in Bath, UK. She is interested in questions of scale and sustainability of educational reforms in developing countries. Dhanda currently works as a research assistant on a project that looks at the nature of accountability relationships in school systems in Mumbai and Kathmandu.

Research interests: Instructional reform implementation in urban high poverty schools; research-practice partnerships.

FortunateFortunate Kelechi Ekwuruke wants to bridge the gap of research and practice through accessible academia with clear implications for policy and programing. Her research interests include the politics of education in Nigeria, housing insecurity and educational systems, NGO and government relations, non-state educational service provision, socioeconomic inequality, and ethnic culture and youth identity.

Research interests: The intersection of housing insecurity/homelessness and education; African education systems and housing insecurity; nonprofit organizations working in education; role of civil society groups in education development 

Zina NoelZina Noel studies comparative domestic and international policy around the first five years of life, focusing on workforce development, culturally responsive and community-based whole family interventions, and early childhood policy in post- and/or conflict settings. Noel previously worked as an early childhood educator and in research, policy, and strategy development for education and early childhood initiatives in the US and abroad.

Research interests: Early care and education policy / maternal and infant policy, particularly around support systems, community-based practices, and workforce development. Comparative international education and development policy and relationship-building between developing communities across international contexts.

karla thomasKarla Thomas is a Trinidadian based in Evanston. Her research interests center around race and gender inequities in education, specifically the impact of pro-equity efforts to change a school's social climate and reduce micro-aggressions experienced by kids. She is particularly interested in how social climates in classrooms and playgrounds impact children of color or who identify as LGBTQ, and how perceived discrimination and unconscious bias affect their development, psychologically and academically.

Research interests: Racial and gender inequities in education; measuring the effects of school climate on racial groups, Liberation Education.






By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/4/20