The Dorothy S. Thomas Award and PSC’s Legacy of Training ‘Master Craftsmen’

September 26, 2023

Dorothy Thomas’s obituarist summarized her life tightly: Her aim was “to be a master craftsman and to turn out master craftsmen,” and she succeeded in both.

The legendary population scientist Dorothy Thomas (1899-1975) who was the first female professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is also the namesake of the most significant award offered to students in the field of demography: the Dorothy S. Thomas Award established by the Population Association of America (PAA).

That award is granted annually to the best graduate student paper on the interrelationships among social, economic and demographic variables, and the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center (PSC) at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is home to an enviable number of its recipients: 17 affiliates have won the award since its inception in 1980. 

That affiliate list begins with former PSC and ISR director David Lam, who remembers receiving the Dorothy Thomas award in Pittsburgh in 1983. At that time, Lam was completing his PhD in economics at Berkeley; he’d been on the job market that year and had just accepted a position to join PSC and Michigan’s Department of Economics that fall. His winning paper– as best Lam can recall after 40 years– was “The Variance of Population Characteristics in Stable Populations, with Applications to the Distribution of Income,” published in Population Studies in March 1984.  

In the decades that followed, the Dorothy S. Thomas Award continually certified the Michigan Population Studies Center (PSC) as a premiere training ground for demography’s “master craftsmen.” 

“PSC has always recruited fantastic graduate students and has done a great job transitioning them from coursework to state-of-the-art demographic research,” said Lam. “It’s not surprising that so many of our students have been selected for the Dorothy Thomas Award.” 

Sarah Burgard, David Lam, and Erin Ice
These three generations of recipients of PAA’s Dorothy Thomas Award won the honor 20 years apart– in 1983, 2003, and 2023. From left to right, PSC Director Sarah Burgard, former ISR and PSC Director and Faculty Emeritus David Lam, and PSC Trainee and Sociology PhD Candidate Erin Ice. They are pictured at the 2023 David Lam Symposium at the Institute for Social Research.

Among generations of PSC alumni who have won the award, it’s notable that Olga Malkova, Jason Kerwin, Eric Chyn, and Bryan A. Stuart earned the distinction over four consecutive years (2015-2018). The next PSC recipient was sociologist Christina Cross (2020), for “Racial/Ethnic Differences in the Association Between Family Structure and Children’s Education,” published in Journal of Marriage and Family.

And Cross bestowed the latest award at the PAA ceremony in New Orleans to PSC’s Erin Ice. Ice’s winning paper, Bringing Family Demography Back In: A Life Course Approach to the Gender Gap in Caregiving in the United States, published in Social Forces, illustrates how the differential burden of caregiving in early life can create ethno-racial disparities among women– not just between women and men.

“This paper is a testament to how I’ve been stimulated during my training at the University of Michigan,” Ice said on receiving her award. “From workshops, to writing groups, to grant funding, to conference support, and above all, the generous support from many faculty and fellow graduate students, I have been greatly nourished by the Institute for Social Research and the Sociology Department.”

Another name stands out among Dorothy S. Thomas Award recipients: PSC’s current director, Sarah Burgard won in 2003. Her paper was “Does race matter? Children’s height in Brazil and South Africa,” published in Demography in 2002. She examined racial differences in child stunting in mid-1990s South Africa and Brazil, comparing results from multiracial societies with different histories of legal support for racial discrimination. Burgard is also Ice’s advisor.

Burgard remembers the anxious, walking-on-air day she received the career-launching kiss of the Dorothy Thomas award at the PAA ceremony in Minneapolis, and the surprise of flowers delivered to her hotel room. The significance of the award for Burgard was deepened by her admiration for Dorothy Thomas herself, who was honored not only with the presidencies of the American Sociological Association and of the Population Association of America but by the exponential returns of work by the students she impacted.

“She was amazing and I seek to model myself after her,” said Burgard.

Three more Dorothy S. Thomas Award recipients are current faculty of PSC. Arline Geronimus, famous for the transformational public health concept that the stress suffered by marginalized people has a “weathering” effect on their health, won in 1986 with PSC alumna Rachel Connelly. Narayan Sastry of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) won in 1995, and Stone Center for Inequality Dynamics Director Alexandra (Sasha) Killewald won with co-author Margaret Gough (also a PSC alum) in 2010.

The Population Studies Center (PSC) was among the first population centers in the United States, with a distinguished 60-year record of domestic and international research and training in population dynamics. Some 40 graduate and postdoctoral scholars are in PSC’s Training Program, directed by Jeffrey Morenoff. PSC’s training faculty is composed of multi-disciplinary researchers with well-funded projects, on some of the most central data collection projects for studying population dynamics. 

PSC Affiliates who have won PAA’s annual Dorothy Thomas Award, the most significant award offered to students in demography

2023: Erin Ice
2020: Christina Cross
2018: Bryan A. Stuart
2017: Eric Chyn
2016: Jason Kerwin
2015: Olga Malkova
2010: Margaret Gough and Alexandra Killewald
2007: Amy Hsin
2003: Sarah Burgard
2000: Theodore Mouw
1997: John Iceland (with Heather Koball)
1995: Narayan Sastry
1991:  Deborah A. Cobb-Clark
1986: Rachel Connelly and Arline T. Geronimus
1983: David A. Lam

Contact: Tevah Platt, [email protected]