Anthropology Professor Amy Dao Awarded National Science Foundation Research Grant

September 9, 2021

amy daoAmy Dao, assistant professor of anthropology, was awarded the National Science Foundation Research (NSF) Grant. Dao's research will investigate how multigenerational households navigate care and safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dao's interest in studying multigeneration households stems from personal experience. Her parents, Vietnamese refugees, came to the United States in the 1980s. During that time, her parents and their siblings lived in a one-bedroom apartment.

"Even when my parents were able to buy a home, they would still rent out rooms to other families, and eventually, my grandparents would live with us for a while," said Dao.

Dao's research continued to evolve, but one factor stayed consistent, and that was family dynamics.

"When I was doing my Ph.D. research in Vietnam, I spent a lot of time living and working alongside families to try to understand how households made financial decisions about health care,” she said. “I was interested in how changes in global economic policies affected their everyday lives and health."

Part of Dao's doctorate research took place while living with families in the rural Mekong Delta.

"Many of the families were economically precarious, and this affected their family dynamics and what kinds of things they could do to manage the family's health," she said. 

Now, as we are in the midst of a global pandemic, managing to keep families and communities safe has been a difficult path to navigate.

"When the pandemic started, my mentor Mark Nichter (who is a consultant on the project) approached me about bringing similar questions to multigenerational households here who also face structural constraints but are trying to do the best they can to keep their families safe. From there, the idea developed into the project," said Dao.

Dao explains that the current recommendations to stop the spread of the virus are individually focused, such as isolating, wearing masks, and physically distancing.

"We look at phenomena that constrain their ability to practice recommended actions for preventing infection. How easy is this to do when you share a space with more than five people in the household, some of whom are immunocompromised? What do you do? We're interested in how they manage the pandemic despite living in close quarters and experiencing economic precarity and structural racism," said Dao. 

As someone trained in social sciences and public health, Dao said that gaining insights from this research and sharing it with those that can make a difference is critical — especially with all the different factors at play. 

"You have this infectious disease that is burning through our communities and has turned these survival strategies into high-risk conditions. Another big difference this time too is the price and shortage of housing, which has also meant that the overall number of multigenerational households in the U.S. is rising, with California holding the second-highest proportion of multigenerational households after Hawaii," Dao said.

This research will also play a role in the work our students do. True to the university’s polytechnic approach, students registered for the ANT4900 course will participate in the research process. Students will be trained on research methods, data collection, and data analysis to present their results.

"That's what I think is great about running the NSF project through the course. Studies show that undergrads who participate in research are more engaged and graduate at higher rates,” she said.

Dao is an advocate for research opportunities for undergraduate students. She was a first-generation student and Pell grant recipient, worked throughout her undergraduate career, and understands the constraints that may arise given the many responsibilities of students.

"Oftentimes, research is undertaken on top of taking courses to graduate and all your other responsibilities. Our students wear many hats—they're parents, caretakers, work full time, etc. By having an authentic research experience baked into the curriculum through a course, it helps to democratize the research experience," said Dao.

While studying for her undergraduate degree at UC Riverside (UCR), Dao recalls the chance to work on a research project with her faculty mentor, Juliet McMullin. It was a moment that shifted what she thought was possible for herself.

"Now I get to work on important and timely questions with cool people who I respect and admire. I'm always thinking, 'Wow, I get paid to do this?' When I started at CPP in 2018, one of my goals was to get a grant to pay forward the same opportunities given to me. I hope that it is just as meaningful for my students as it was for me when I was a student," said Dao.

The NSF grant isn't the only thing keeping Dao busy this semester; she was appointed to the Advisory Committee on Digital Health and Human Rights Project with The Graduate Institute Geneva. The committee will examine gaps in digital health data.

Dao also received funding from the University of California Humanities Research Institute Podcast Support Grant. The podcast is called "Healthy Disruption." It will document the experience of the pandemic in Southern California. Specifically, it will tell the stories of Southern California's underserved residents.