The W. Fred Cottrell Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes Miami University gerontology graduate student alumni for outstanding leadership in the field of aging.
Dawn Carr, who holds a doctorate in social gerontology from Miami University came back to Ohio to accept the Cottrell Award on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. She was kind enough to answer the following questions on her time as a student and her journey to become the Director of the Claude Pepper Center.
Why did you choose the MGS program?
I chose Miami University’s master of gerontological studies (MGS) program because of the faculty. I initially reached out to learn more about gerontology and my first conversation with faculty lasted almost two hours. I was so impressed by their kindness, their sense of mission, and the ways in which the training was meant to directly improve the lives of older people. I appreciated that I would learn research skills in the process – skills that were both practical as well as academic. The combination was really exciting because I didn’t really know what direction I wanted my career to take.
Tell us about your experience as an MGS student.
My time as an MGS student was life-changing. I truly feel like the MGS program helped me learn about how the world works. I had never learned about healthcare, long-term care, social policy, or any kind of research methods. I had never even taken a social science class before. Every class felt like I was learning these big and important things and making connections that I’d never made before. I learned how passionate I am about older people, but also how much fun it was to work with data, evaluate the way programs, and communicate with stakeholders. I am using those skills every single day and I graduated almost 20 years ago. How many people are able to say that about their educational training?
Tell us about your career path since earning your MGS degree.
After I completed my MGS, I went on to get a Ph.D. in social gerontology at Miami in 2009. I worked for one year at Scripps and then left for the Institute on Aging at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I was a postdoc in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) training grant program for two years under the mentorship of Victor Marshall. In 2012, I spent four years at the Stanford Center on Longevity, under the leadership of Laura Carstensen. In 2016, I accepted an assistant professor position in the Department of Sociology at Florida State University, housed with other aging researchers in the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy. I was tenured in 2019, and in May of 2022, I accepted the position of Director of the Claude Pepper Center, which is also at Florida State University, and is a translational aging research center with a focus on policy translation in particular. I was recently promoted to full professor of sociology.
What do you like most about the work that you're doing today?
Honestly, what don’t I like? I can’t imagine a job that could be more interesting than being the director of a research center. I love working on a mix of different types of projects, engaging with various stakeholders, and meeting with people from a variety of organizations to figure out what we need to know and do to improve the lives of older people. For example, in one day I met with someone to start developing a new initiative at the center, then I gave a presentation to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, then I spoke to a committee evaluating ways to improve doctoral education, and I finished the day listening to a student-design challenge that is focused on aging in place. In between events, I read a student’s dissertation and worked on statistical coding for an NIH-funded project. Not every day is that power-packed, but it does give you an idea of the kinds of fun activities I get to do all day long.
What advice do you have for current students who want to work in the field of aging?
My biggest advice is that you never know how your applied and research experiences will pay off, so it’s better to try hard things even if you aren’t sure you’ll be good at them. Some of my most valuable lessons came from jumping into projects and trying to learn new things. Also, aging experts have never been needed more than they are today.