Liann Tucker uses network analysis to study adolescent mental health and health-risk behaviors

Liann Tucker

PHD candidate, Department of Sociology
Using network analysis to study adolescent mental health and health-risk behaviors

About Liann

I’m from the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, CA and attended UC Davis as an undergraduate. I knew as an undergrad I wanted to get my PhD, so my senior year I applied to doctoral programs, accepted my offer of admission, graduated in June, and was in Durham by August. My mentor was a little concerned I was taking on graduate school a bit fast, but I knew this was the right decision for me. My mentor in undergrad introduced me to the topic of networks and I immediately knew that was my focus.

Choosing Duke

I was choosing between four programs at the time, but really wanted a program where I could focus on projects I was truly interested in and develop my own identity as a sociologist. Duke Sociology was different from most PhD programs, where they didn’t focus on the traditional role of a PhD student where you work with your advisor on a big project and then a smaller part of that project becomes your dissertation. While some people thrive with that kind of structure, I preferred to have free reign to explore. I didn’t want to just become a mini-me to my advisor. What’s unique about Duke’s sociology department is that they accept a few people each year into their PhD program that are straight from undergrad, so there are classmates that are following the same track. The really big draw for me was the freedom to choose my own path. My adviser had the messaging of: “whatever you want, you’ll get support.”

Research Focus

I’m very interested in social connections and think that our relationship with other people are so influential and can tell us a lot about ourselves and the impact on our own outcomes. Studying networks is unique since you can look at it a micro level, where two people interact with each other, or a macro level where you can look at the whole structure, such as an entire school, as one big network.

When I explain my research as the study of social relationships, I typically don’t say ‘networks’ because most people assume I am talking about social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. My main focus is adolescence and mental health and health risk behaviors. In adolescence your peers become important, often times more important than parents. So, I take a closer look at how peers are related to mental health and health risk behaviors. Your health in adolescence is a strong predictor of what your adult life is going to be like.

My dissertation focuses on friendship stability. Long-term friendships. Someone you can count on. So far there hasn’t been a lot of research in sociology on the topic but we do know there is an indicator of mental health issues and risk behavior issues. For adolescents, we rely on like school surveys, where students identify their closest five friends. Each wave we ask the same questions to the same students to get the data we need. The data I’m working with right now was collected in like the early 2000’s at UNC. My undergraduate mentor was part of this data collection at UNC when he was a PhD student, so we are working on this project together.

Social Is Important

My advisor, Professor Jim Moody, has a quote that he puts in front of every presentation he gives that always resonates with me: “To speak of social life is to speak of the association between people – their associating in work and in play, in love and in war, to trade or to worship, to help or to hinder. It is in the social relations men establish that their interests find expression and their desires become realized.” – Peter M. Blau, 1964

Social life itself, as we all know, is really messy. Social science research can provide the answers to questions that can benefit the rest of society and help make policies and decisions about what’s best for the community. The purpose of my work, and social science in general, is to help people make those decisions based on evidence.

Next Steps

I’m in my fourth year and I have about a year and a half until I’m on the job market. My goal is to stay in academia, although I am not opposed to other options. Staying in academia would allow me to continue doing research and teaching. It is a bit nerve-wracking seeing how this pandemic has caused so much uncertainty with a lack of tenure track jobs available.

For now, I’m continuing my research, working on publishing papers, and finishing my dissertation.

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