NSF recognizes personal research

Jennifer Barajas

New Fellow Jennifer Barajas studies Latino health inequity

During an interview about having received a National Science Foundation Graduate Student Fellowship, Jennifer Barajas offered thanks to UC Irvine students and faculty members who have helped her on her journey as a Ph.D. student in psychological science.

Just before the chat wrapped up, Barajas asked if she could also include in this story her mother Alma, her father Gabriel, her sister Vanessa and her brother Erick. “If I could just thank them for supporting me,” she said. “If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be where I am now.”

What Barajas studies are structural and organizational inequities and ill health in Latino populations. The way she sees it, had her parents and older siblings not immigrated from Mexico so she could be born in the United States, it is unlikely she would have become a first-generation college student, graduate student and now NSF fellow.

Shortly after moving to California, the Barajas brood returned to Mexico because of the high cost of living here. But, they found living in Tijuana in the early 2000s “very dangerous,” according to Barajas.

“My sister and I couldn’t even walk to school sometimes,” she says. “You don’t want to put children in this environment where a neighbor’s house is getting shot up and your daughters can’t even go to school. But you can’t afford for them to be home-schooled.”

When Barajas was 8, her family moved north again, this time to the more affordable Henderson, Nevada, which is about 16 miles southeast of downtown Las Vegas. No one in the family spoke much English at the time, and she says they encountered few Latinos or Spanish speakers in Henderson.

Her siblings had a difficult time transitioning, especially at school, where they were bullied, Barajas says. “We were just very confused by the differences in how children treated their parents and how children treated each other,” she explains. “It was a big culture shock and it was just difficult to be a kid, too, and navigating this new world on your own. There’s no book on that.”

As the youngest, Barajas had the easiest time assimilating — and achieving, while her parents struggled to adapt to the new language and norms of living in Henderson. She spent a summer as an organizational behavior intern with the Yale School of Management the summer before graduating from Nevada State College with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in business.

The 25-year-old is aiming for attaining her Ph.D. from UCI in 2026 — or “three years-ish,” as she puts it — which brings us back to her research that the NSF is funding: Latinos’ exposure to discrimination on social media platforms.

“We know that in an interpersonal context or occupational context, people face discrimination, and that this is a type of psychological and social stressor that affects people’s mental and physical health,” Barajas explains. “What my research also investigates is how exposure to vicarious discrimination (that we see other people facing online) affects viewers’ health and well-being. My NSF research proposal, in summary, was on how direct or vicarious exposure to race-based-discrimination on social media may arise an emotional, social, or behavioral stress response if the victim is of the same ethnicity/race as the viewer. I proposed that these stressors may impact health, happiness and well-being.”

She continues, “for example, a Latino male scrolling through Facebook or TikTok may see an anti-immigrant hate-crime video depicting another Latino male being harassed or assaulted for his citizenship status. If the person that's being discriminated against is the same ethnic group as the person viewing it, how does that affect them? With social media, it's no longer about ‘I'm’ being discriminated against but rather it’s the repetitive cycle of seeing people like me, from other parts of the world, being discriminated against, and now I'm affected.”

This is very personal to her because of her family’s experiences in the U.S. and the spark that was lit when she began as an undergrad working in a social psychology lab that explored how immigrants are depicted in the media. The lab was led by a Latina professor, Shantal Marshall, who “ran a study that looked at how metaphors used to describe immigrants can elicit anti-immigrant perceptions,” Barajas says. “She saw what she categorized as ‘vermin metaphors.’ That's what really got me into realizing that ‘Oh my gosh, I can really study all of these things that I know is happening to people like me — and maybe even have a job doing it.”

She appreciates NSF funding but is most gratified by what the fellowship represents.

“That fact that I, as a Latina — who sometimes feels that my work gets overlooked because some people consider it a hot topic or political — am receiving this is so validating. It's hard to translate to my parents, who have elementary school educations, what a Ph.D. in psychological science is, and what my research in general investigates. They have no idea. One thing they do know is that it’s giant to get accredited by an agency of the U.S. government. That my work is good enough to fund by such a high entity just made them so utterly proud of me.”

She adds that pride and the sense that “if it’s good enough for the NSF, it’s good for all!” extends to her academic peers and faculty mentors.

“It is something I did not expect at all and for me to get it made me feel like this work matters outside of my own perception of it and I'm moving in the right direction,” she says. “I actually had an offer from UCLA to get my Ph.D. there, and one of the reasons I picked UCI is because of the advisor I am working with now, Dr. Kristine Molina.”

The associate professor of psychological science “does work specifically on Latinos and studies the health outcomes from the different inequities that they face. And one reason why we study Latinos, I mean, obviously, we have a bias because we're both Latinas, however another reason is because we know from personal experience what the U.S. context may look like for millions of Latinos in this country. Latinos are such a growing body of the United States. In fact, in the next few years, Latinos are going to be one in five workers or 20% of the workforce and are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. college incoming cohorts. This population has huge implications for the economy, productivity and viability of the nation, and I think that’s what NSF loved to see.”

Barajas also gives a shoutout to Paul Piff, her secondary advisor and associate professor of psychological science, for letting her bounce ideas off him and offering support “because he also studies intergroup relations and social class and always is willing to sit down with me to have fruitful conversations about my research and the field at large.”  

“I will say that I think my biggest supporters thus far have been my peers,” she adds. “The students in this department are so kind. If it wasn’t for them, I think I would have wanted to give up on my career a long time ago, because graduate school at a research-focused institution is very hard.”

When they heard about the NSF fellowship, all offered congratulations, many wanted to take her out to dinner to celebrate and a couple gave her a bottle of Champagne.

“They were just happy that someone here got it, because it could be that no one in the department gets it at all,” Barajas says. “A bunch of us applied for it, and we all said before we even heard the news that as long as one of us gets it that means that we all won.”

— Matt Coker