Sarah Burgard

by Susan Rosegrant
March 2009

Sarah Burgard has a special sympathy for people who make a giant leap from where they started out to where they want to go. When Burgard was 16, she was crowned 4-H Saddle Club Queen, an award celebrating congeniality, horse riding skills, and equine knowledge. The assistant research scientist at Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR) remembers it well: the dusty arena; the pink, multi-tiered dress; the “dangerous” perm; the tiara. She also remembers the stunned reaction of the crowd. Her parents had pushed her to enter, but everyone expected another contestant to win—a popular petite blonde who was the star of the Saddle Club. “It was awful,” Burgard recalls, flashing a pained smile. “People clapped, but they were not happy. Then I had to walk around with a sash. But I survived.”

Burgard is more than a survivor; she is a bit of a rising star. Her research ranges widely, but is linked by a common theme: examining the unintended health consequences of macroeconomic changes and policy choices on the underprivileged. “I have a real interest in people who make transitions in their lives, and what that means in terms of implications for their health and well being,” she says. Since coming to Michigan in 2005 as an assistant professor in sociology, a research scientist at ISR’s Population Studies Center, and an adjunct assistant professor in epidemiology, Burgard has published extensively, and her research already has been featured on the nightly news and in mainstream media such as The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report.

To understand the 33-year-old Burgard, you need to look at her past. She was raised on a farm outside West Bend, a small community tucked between Milwaukee and Madison. Burgard remembers it as an “exceptional” childhood in a tight and supportive family. She and her three younger siblings mucked out stalls and did chores around the farm. Her father was a union worker, a heating and air conditioning repair man—blue collar work. Her mom held various jobs and also worked at home. Both parents were high school graduates; no one in Burgard’s family had been to college.

By late high school, Burgard had her 4-H tiara. She also knew she wanted something profoundly different. The hardest step was the first—from a public high school that was not designed to send kids to college to the academic pressure cooker of prestigious Reed College in Oregon. The first two years were white-knuckle hard. “I had never written a real paper,” Burgard recalls. But supportive faculty helped her, and in her junior year she began studying with sociologist John Pock, known for his work on social stratification and for being a mentor to promising students. Pock, now professor emeritus, says he always looked for a certain raw material: students with a strong work ethic who weren’t afraid to confront authority. Burgard, he recalls, was particularly responsive. By her senior year, he declared that she should write an undergraduate thesis for him, and then get a Ph.D. in sociology. “I’m not the kind of person who usually likes to be told what to do,” Burgard says, with a hearty laugh. But she was awed by the path he described. She hadn’t considered graduate school, and had never even heard of the GRE. “I was sailing in uncharted waters,” she recalls. “I don’t know what he saw in me,” she says, “but thank goodness he did.”

Burgard went on to get a Ph.D. at UCLA in sociology and a master’s in epidemiology, writing her dissertation on racial differences in the growth of children in Brazil and South Africa, countries with diametrically opposed racial policies. “Grad school was easy after Reed,” Burgard declares. “I just brought my farmer, can-do, work-hard attitude.” For her post-doc, Burgard won a spot at Michigan as a fellow with the first cohort of the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Societies Scholars, a two-year program that recruited top faculty from across disciplines to work with fellows on issues affecting population health. It allowed Burgard, whose previous research focus had been international, to satisfy her growing preference for interdisciplinary work and to dig into questions about how job insecurity affects workers in the U.S. She has deepened and broadened that work since joining Michigan’s faculty three years ago.

One of her most important areas of research has been uncovering the health impacts of job insecurity—”the long-term and persistent insecurity that more and more people in this economy are facing.” Burgard had expected to discover that those who are anxious about losing their jobs suffer ill effects. But the extent of the impact surprised even her. “Being persistently worried about your job has bigger effects on health than losing your job and recovering and going back in the labor force,” she explains. “It has bigger effects than a health shock.” Burgard describes it as the waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop problem. “It’s a very difficult position for people to sustain, particularly if they’re a bread winner and they have responsibility for other people.”

The findings caught the attention of The Washington Post, and the article that ran triggered a visceral response from people enduring unreliable jobs. Burgard calls it “an important cautionary tale” for policymakers who need to consider the broader consequences of the new economy. “Is it costless to shift to contingent labor, for example?” she asks. “I think everybody knows it’s not, but sometimes we don’t think about all the ways that this has ramifications for people.” She adds: “Given the numbers for unemployment and the mortgage crisis and macroeconomic situations the country is facing right now, it’s a very important issue, yet one where we don’t have as good data as we need to have.”

Burgard recently tackled another area of health research: how factors such as job worries and being responsible for multiple roles can impact sleep. One study examined the sleep patterns of parents who work full time. Burgard expected to find—as anecdotal evidence might suggest—that working women who are mothers sleep fewer hours than men in the same dual roles. Instead, research revealed that men and women who are working parents sleep the same number of hours—and neither group sleeps enough. “Even though many working women are not sleeping their optimal hours, their sleep quality is high and their life satisfaction is actually really good and levels of depression are lower than their nonworking peers,” Burgard says. “So it’s not always bad to have short sleep, it just depends on why. If you’re a well educated, fairly well paid career woman who’s doing a job that you feel good about, that’s a very different situation from someone who’s working two restaurant jobs and barely making it.”

And Burgard still conducts international research, such as studying whether South Africa’s transition from apartheid has altered risky behaviors among youth, and if the preference for sons in China affects children’s growth. “A lot of folks get tied to a U.S. focus, but I think it’s only in comparison with really different cases that you can see what’s unique about a given situation, and that many things are not universal; they don’t work the same way in every country or every society,” Burgard says. “For example, most of the research on job insecurity has been done in Finland, Great Britain, and other places that have much better unemployment insurance benefits or job retraining programs than the U.S. does. If we base all our policy on Finnish data, we’re missing a huge part of the story.”

All these projects grapple with health and inequality, and for each of them, Burgard is looking at how the research might impact policy. “When you’re thinking about policymakers and people who have a lot of economic power in this country, you’ve got to hit them in the pocketbook,” she says. Employers don’t want to hear that part-time and contingent jobs are bad because the fixes are expensive, Burgard explains. But the argument she hopes to make is that saving money on employee contracts up front may result in financial costs down the road as workers become less productive or sick. In the back of her mind are many of her peers back home in West Bend, working as wait staff, as secretaries, or for temp agencies— just the kinds of jobs she’s studying. “There are few good jobs being made where I grew up, and because of the way that risk is being allocated in society now, the people I grew up with are forced to deal with this precarious situation,” Burgard says. “Thinking about the longer term impact of this and how I want to change things for other people—it’s all directed back to that.”

Now, in the fall of 2008, Burgard is enmeshed in the life of an assistant professor. She goes up for tenure in less than two years, which explains her typical day: Out of bed before 7:00, write until lunch, meet with collaborators and teach, go to the gym, cook dinner, work a few more hours, sleep. Her husband, Victor Fanucchi, is a filmmaker and screenwriter who is simultaneously filming a movie and teaching screenwriting and video production at Michigan, so home is not a place of respite. Burgard’s three main escapes are gardening, running, and baking; she specializes in ornate cupcakes and is in search of the perfect double crust apple pie.

Her ISR office is unadorned, except for a large whiteboard covered with neat writing in orange and purple: the eleven papers she’s writing, the five grants she’s pursuing, the four new datasets she wants to use in her research. Most of her projects are collaborations: Burgard feels they allow her to do her best and most efficient work. “I’m the farmer in the process,” she declares. “I get up early, I work really hard, I work long hours, I push things forward.” Others cite different characteristics: “Tactful, very smart, holds up her end of the bargain, easy to work with,” says Richard Price, a professor of management and organizations at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Price, who describes Burgard as “a first-rate quantitative researcher” with “absolutely outstanding” analytic skills, asked Burgard to work with him on a recent chapter because of her expertise in non-standard work and employment. “Sarah’s a junior person; I’m a pretty senior person,” Price notes. “I would love to be as skillful at working with other people as I think she is.”

Burgard is also unusually open to collaborations with students. Jennifer Ailshire, a graduate student in sociology at Michigan, has been collaborating with Burgard on sleep studies for a year-and-a-half. “Some people don’t see the value of working with students—either for themselves or for the students,” Ailshire says. But Burgard was immediately receptive when Ailshire approached her with ideas. “She’s been an excellent female role model for me, which is sometimes hard to find in quantitative sociology work,” Ailshire says, adding, “I can’t imagine anyone who knows her who wouldn’t call her a friend.” Other graduate students have sought out Burgard as a mentor. Burgard attributes this in part to her quantitative expertise in health and inequality, a growing field. But there’s also her own story, and the insights that transition gave her. “I feel it helps me in my teaching, particularly when I have kids who are first generation college students,” she muses. “I feel I can connect with them in a way that they may not be able to connect with all their faculty contacts.”

Burgard hasn’t buried her background, and to a certain extent, she still feels in transition. She helped two of her younger siblings navigate college, and watched with pride as her mother recently returned to school and became an intensive care nurse. With each new phase of her life, she remains grateful for what she has been given. For example, she just finished paying off her Reed student loans with the help of a National Institutes of Health loan repayment program available to researchers who study health disparities. “Without the help of things like that, there’s no way I would be here,” says Burgard, who sometimes pauses to wonder at what her life has become. “I always try to remember that, because some people just don’t get the lucky breaks that I got.”