Faculty Spotlight: Caroline Sanner
May 26, 2020
Caroline Sanner was recently named an assistant professor of human development and family science at Virginia Tech.
What should we know about you?
My hometown is St. Louis, Missouri — home of the Arch, toasted ravioli, and the world-champion St. Louis Blues. After completing my PhD and a postdoc at the University of Missouri, I spent a year teaching in beautiful British Columbia. I have a very energetic, very entertaining Jack Russell mix named Niko. We love exploring new places and meeting new people, and occasionally, taking naps.
What is the focus of your research?
Broadly, I study family processes in non-nuclear family structures. Families are increasingly diverse and complex, and I’m interested in how families navigate that complexity. For example, how do divorced parents establish healthy coparenting relationships? How do stepmothers feel about (and experience) the transition to stepmotherhood? How do ex-stepparents maintain relationships with their ex-stepchildren?
In addition to exploring family-level processes, I’m also interested in understanding how families either benefit from or are disadvantaged by social structures and institutions, such as laws, policies, and systems. My work seeks to inform the efforts of program developers, policy makers, and helping professionals who aim to enhance the well-being of people in complex families.
Why is your research important?
Diverse family forms are here to stay, but too often, these family forms are viewed as dysfunctional, problematic, or symptomatic of a breakdown in societal values. In addition, social structures and institutions have been built to support the nuclear family, often to the disadvantage and exclusion of other family forms.
My work assumes the position that there are powerful lessons that can be learned about success, resilience, and functionality from structurally diverse and complex families. Strengths-based research on diverse family forms is sorely need, particularly research that moves beyond documenting how individual families struggle or thrive to also address how laws, policies, and systems produce familial challenges or advantages.
What do you most look forward to at Virginia Tech?
The people! I’m very much looking forward to engaging with the community of scholars at Virginia Tech. Learning, researching, and producing scholarship is so much more fun (really — fun!) when it’s a collective effort. I’m equally excited to engage with the students; I deeply enjoy the creative energy and intellectual vitality of the university classroom.
What goals do you hope to accomplish in your first few years?
One of my primary goals is to uncover new ways of translating my research into policy, practice, and programming. Virginia Tech’s motto (Ut Prosim; That I May Serve) is such an important call to action, a reminder to use our talents to promote the betterment of families and communities.
Toward that effort, I also look forward to establishing community relationships. In Missouri, I taught research-based programs on topics such as how to strengthen romantic partnerships, how to nurture and support children during parental separation and divorce, and how to create healthy stepfamily dynamics. I hope to pursue similar opportunities for community engagement in Virginia.
What is your favorite part about mentoring students?
Watching students develop their own informed opinions as young scholars is easily one of the most rewarding parts of what I do. The ability to develop informed opinions about key issues facing families and society and to communicate those thoughts to others equips students to go out and change the world. It’s a privilege to watch them grow in their confidence of ideas.
What are your personal interests?
If I could snap my fingers and be anywhere in a moment, I would be skiing (snow skiing first, water skiing second). My more accessible hobby is exploring trails with my husband and our dog. We also are a big sports family — if you see me outside of work, there is a 99-percent chance I will be repping a St. Louis sports logo of some kind.
What is the most helpful advice you have received?
My favorite mantra is a quote by Dr. Roxane Gay, a writer and professor: “Change requires intent and effort. It really is that simple.”
I think many of us strive to affect change through our work, but sometimes that task can feel daunting. I often remind myself of Dr. Gay’s words when the road to change feels long.
Interview by Casey McGregor