VEST Alumna Uses Curry Training as Springboard for Future Work with Communities of Color

The University of Virginia's Curry School of Education continues to support the Virginia Education Sciences Training (VEST) pre-doctoral fellowship program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. This interdisciplinary program has been supporting doctoral students at UVA for over 10 years.

With more than 75 alumni across education, economics, sociology, and psychology departments at UVA, VEST has produced highly trained professionals who hold positions from postdoctoral scientists to education statisticians to assistant professors. The VEST program applies rigorous research methods and analytical techniques in the social sciences field to study school and classroom effects.

The Curry School of Education continues a question-and-answer series with VEST alumni. We sat down with Riana Anderson, a 2015 graduate from the UVA Department of Psychology, to learn more about her experience at the Curry School of Education and her professional life beyond UVA.

Riana Anderson, Ph.D. is currently a Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellow and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leader in the Racial Empowerment Collaborative (REC) within the Applied Psychology and Human Development Division (APHD) at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to this position, Anderson was a clinical and community psychology pre-doctoral fellow at Yale University's School of Medicine.

Question: What type of work have you been doing in your post-doc?

Anderson: Surprisingly, more than just the typical post-doc work of writing papers and getting published. During my first year, I spearheaded the development and implementation of an intervention, and now we are running a larger scale pilot for it. It has been a lot of fun and very helpful to the families that we work with in Philadelphia.

The intervention is called EMBRace which is Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race, and it's a five session intervention that focuses on both parent-child communication and racial socialization. We walk families through how to talk to their children about race, but in doing that, we also hope bonds are built across the families so they can talk about other challenging issues.

Question: How did your work in VEST and at the Curry School of Education help prepare you for this research?

Anderson: I would not be where I am today with the support I received in VEST and from the faculty in educational science. I can see all the different components of my training at UVA now playing out in my current work, including creating an intervention in real time, understanding the secondary data analysis and using mixed methodology. The training was invaluable, and throughout my post-doc I have pulled on these experiences. VEST gave me an opportunity to experience different mentoring styles and different expertise. Even my current mentor gave a talk during the VEST speaker series.

Question: What is the most rewarding part of the work you are currently doing?

Anderson: I love my job, but the work is so different than what I envisioned when I started graduate school. The rewarding piece — and this I would say is from the mixed methodology standpoint — is valuing process, observation and the different ways of sharing what works. Research doesn't have to be quantitative, especially when tackling really complex issues around race.

In sessions during our intervention, I worked with families where the mother said, "Oh, racism doesn't impact my child." And then that mother's eyes were opened when her child shared, "Oh yeah, last week this teacher said this, and I heard this on TV." The mother had no idea that child was having these experiences. During these sessions, these families were leaning in and opening up to each other in really meaningful ways.

It has been my desire since I was a child to work with Black families — to make them healthier, happier, and stronger — and the research I'm conducting now is doing just that in these communities.

Question: What advice do you have for future researchers?

Anderson: In science, there are problems and there are solutions, and you may be thinking about things that the literature has never addressed. Do not be discouraged or afraid to do the work that speaks to you. Just because it hasn't been done or because people don't value it at that moment, doesn't mean it is not important. And it doesn't have to look the way that people have presented it to you. It is okay to sit with your ideas, hang onto them until the right moment and then come up with the best ways to address them. Don't be discouraged; your time is coming.

Anderson is the tenth VEST fellow alumni interviewed in this series. Read the other Q & A articles with Wei-Bing Chen, Erin Dunlap, Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch, Terri Sabol, Laura Brock, Myles Durkee, Maria Fitzpatrick, Eva Galdo, and Anne Cash.

For more information about the VEST program, please visit our website or email