Kathleen Mullan Harris is the James E. Haar Distinguished Professor of Sociology and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina. She is an internationally recognized scholar of social inequality, specializing in the substantive areas of family, poverty, and health. Harris has been at the forefront of revolutions in research design, data collection, and data dissemination within the social and behavioral sciences, and has pioneered an integrative research program that merges social and biomedical sciences to advance knowledge on the development of health and social stratification trajectories across the life course.
As Principal Investigator and Director of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) since 2004, Harris has led a nation-wide interdisciplinary research program on health and developmental trajectories from adolescence into adulthood. Her leadership has transformed the study of more than 20,000 teens who are being followed into adulthood through her innovative research designs and integrative models of multidisciplinary research to understand social, environmental, behavioral, biological and genetic linkages in developmental and health trajectories across the life course. She has been an advocate within the social science and population disciplines for bridging social and biomedical sciences to understand how health disparities develop from both an inter- and intra-generational perspective to inform public health and social policy. She has argued forcefully for studying health among the young to identify markers of health risk before disease is manifest to save social, emotional, and financial costs to individuals, families, and society as a whole. She best expressed these perspectives in her 2009 presidential address to the Population Association of America entitled “An Integrative Approach to Health.”
Harris’ published research makes significant contributions to the research literature on single mother families, teenage parenthood, immigrant families, poor families, welfare families, non-marital childbearing, race and ethnic minority families, and the role of social factors in health. Her publications appear in a wide range of disciplinary journals including demography, genetics, family, sociology, epidemiology, biology, public policy, survey methodology, medicine, and social and health behavior. Further, Harris has actively provided her expertise and insight to inform public policy debates, being invited often to Washington, DC for briefings and presentations on her timely research findings. She has helped shape the development of new policies for the poor, families at risk, and the health of disadvantaged populations.
Harris’ talents extend outside the academic realm as well. Harris grew up in a tennis-playing family and before pursuing a career in demography, she played professional tennis. She was accepted into the Satellite Professional Tennis Tour in Europe (one level below the top) in the same year that the University of Pennsylvania offered her a position in their Demography Ph.D. program. Harris recounts explaining her dilemma to Etienne Van de Walle (an avid tennis fan himself) who emphatically told her in his classic French accent to “go play tennis”. She did, and entered the doctoral program one year later. She accepted a position at the University of North Carolina after receiving her doctorate in demography and completing a postdoc in 1990.
At Carolina, Harris has been an invaluable colleague, teacher, and mentor, playing key administrative roles in the Department of Sociology, the Carolina Population Center, and the University. She has diligently advised countless student projects and successfully mentored graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty. Her many students and colleagues immensely value her intellectual influence and wise counsel. She has served the broader scientific community as an influential advisor to many prominent national and international studies, and as a member of numerous national advisory boards, including the Census Bureau National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations, the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Center for Health Statistics, and the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Population.
Harris’ many contributions to social science through research, teaching, mentoring, and service have been recognized through numerous awards and accolades. Among the highlights, she received the Otis Dudley Duncan Award for outstanding scholarship in social demography from the Population Section of the American Sociological Association for her book Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door. She was awarded the 2004 Clogg Award for Early Career Achievement from the Population Association of America. In 2009, Harris served as president of the Population Association of America, during which time she began an engaged role in the development and growth of the PAA Fund Campaign designed to enhance the dissemination and impact of demographic research. In 2013 she was awarded the Warren E. Miller Award for Meritorious Service to the Social Sciences from the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). In 2014, she was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.