Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: Rebecca Ryan

Written by Paige Kupas, MDI Journalism Intern

Professor Rebecca Ryan studies parenting and child development to connect people, policy, and data across her work. Her research, within the Massive Data Institute (MDI) and beyond, aims to increase health, safety, and wellbeing for children and parents. 

At MDI, Ryan worked on a large project with MDI Director Lisa Singh to examine how social media data could be used to learn about parenting beliefs and perspectives. After generating a database of posts related to the topic using popular parenting accounts and parenting keywords, Ryan tracked the posts on parenting beliefs and attitudes, primarily on Twitter. 

The project continued into the pandemic, where Ryan and some of her undergraduate students used the data to track parenting posts about child health — both mental and physical — during the pandemic. Ryan realized that “this could be a really great data source for learning about health in a way that’s not constrained by people’s ability to seek health care.” 

Ryan’s latest research involves evaluating a local food assistance program in Pennsylvania which aims to provide fresh, nutritious food that can be cooked and enjoyed by the entire families of students at Title I schools. Ryan received a three year grant from the William T. Grant Foundation for this research, which involves a two-stage field experiment to enhance and evaluate the program. The treatment group will receive messages designed to reduce barriers to both enrolling and participating in the program, while the control group will receive the program’s standard messages. 

“We’re hoping to boost enrollment and engagement in the treatment group and then use that randomly generated increase in enrollment and engagement to look at how participation in the program affects things like school outcomes, test scores, and maybe child health,” Ryan said. “If we do find that this program meaningfully boosts children’s health and/or educational outcomes, then we can think at a more scalable programmatic level about how to make school-based food assistance a reality for more kids across the country.”

While that research gets off the ground, Ryan is also working on a program for parents of newborn babies in Washington, D.C. The program consists of six Zoom sessions in which parents learn strategies for interacting both with their child and with their partner in a healthy way as they get started with parenting and co-parenting. The goal is to expand this virtual program beyond Washington, D.C. and study its impacts on child development. 

In her future research, Ryan hopes to harness MDI’s data infrastructure to enhance her own work. Ryan is planning a study looking at the relationship between the receipt of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and daily reports of food insecurity, parent behaviors, child wellbeing, and family meal routines. MDI could be a key player by providing a large data source that would give information about trends in food insecurity and food shopping.