For social scientists, the drive to enter academia is often fueled by a desire to better understand people and the contexts in which they work, love, learn, play, triumph, and struggle. As researchers’ academic foci narrow, however, the ivory tower can feel like a lonely place, far-removed from the social reality we initially sought to study. Jane Brown, James L. Knight Professor in UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, serves a reminder to us all that a career in research doesn’t have to come at the expense of connection to the community.
Over the last 35 years, Dr. Brown has defined her career by researching sex, drugs, and rock and roll, focusing on the way media affect adolescents’ sexual behavior. She has co-edited or co-authored 5 books on adolescents’ sexuality, written over 60 book chapters and articles, and is currently working on studies in rural North Carolina, Vietnam, and China. Her CV is so thick that it could be confused for a phone book, yet one of the most impressive things about Dr. Brown is only partially gleaned from a list of her accomplishments. She doesn’t just study people – she truly engages with them, critically examining the implications her research has for their lives and using her findings to inform recommendations for changes in social policy. Additionally, through mentorship and dedication to teaching, Dr. Brown has inspired many to become leaders in health communication. She has forged a strong network that extends across professionals, students, academics, and others.
Dr. Brown’s career in health communication exemplifies the significant contribution a scholar’s research program can make to her field over the course of 35 years, but it doesn’t stop there. It is also living proof that academics don’t have to relegate themselves to isolation in an ivory tower. Instead, by studying culturally relevant phenomena and maintaining a focus on building community, a career in academia can resemble a potluck dinner at which all contributions are welcome and where all guests can eat, drink, and be merry.