Elizabeth Frankenberg

Elizabeth Frankenberg is the director of the Carolina Population Center. Her research focuses on how individuals and families are affected by unexpected events, how they adapt to new circumstances, and the ways that interventions can help.

Elizabeth Frankenbergphoto by Alyssa LaFaro
September 26th, 2018

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A lot of different things at different points. I was a bookworm and, for a while, I wanted to write fiction, but I also loved biology and kids and wanted to be a pediatrician.


“Human populations rebound after adversity.”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

I decided that I wanted to work on international development issues after taking a UNC Geography course as an undergraduate — Melinda Meade’s course on the Geography of Developing Countries. She helped me arrange a trip to Indonesia after my junior year at UNC and that was really pivotal. While working on a masters’ degree in public policy, I returned to Indonesia and also spent time in Bangladesh. I was struck by the regular, visible health problems that women and young children faced. I remember being at the hospital at the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, for example, and thinking about the how the kids there were really sick from diseases that most kids in wealthier countries don’t get. I saw a lot of things that year that confirmed my desire to work in the area of health in developing countries.

Elizabeth Frankenberg and her daugther Campbell

Frankenberg (left) and her daughter Campbell enjoy a day at the beach on Bald Head Island.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

Population surveys provide information about individuals and families, usually by sampling from a set of neighborhoods or communities. Characteristics of those neighborhoods and the availability of nearby resources affect individuals, but designing a sampling strategy for health care providers and schools and linking information about the facilities back to individuals is complicated. I came up with a way to collect data from individuals about providers they knew about, then pool that information to draw samples of providers in real time. It took a lot of pretesting, but it worked. In the process I learned about the importance of thinking outside the box, of getting input from people with different training, and working out the bugs on a small scale.

What are your passions outside of research?

For me it’s important to have ways to take a step back from my research and think about something else. Then when I come back, even if it’s just after an hour or two, I usually have a fresh perspective on it. I love doing things outdoors, especially running, hiking, and sailing. I also love to travel and explore new places.

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