NJ Families Study


Core Research Team

Thomas Espenshade

Principal Investigator

Tom Espenshade, PhD, has a broad background in social demography. He has worked in the field of education for the past 15 years, first in higher education and more recently in early childhood education. His work is motivated by a belief that an urgent problem facing the United States is the failure of so many young people to reach their full educational potential. Families are children’s first schools, and we need to know more about how families build skills in their young children and get them ready to learn.

Melanie Wright Fox

Graduate Student

Melanie came to Princeton from North Carolina and Duke University, and she now studies how families raise children despite different kinds of challenges. She has previously worked with large scale data sets, particularly the Fragile Families Study, but wanted to get to know families more directly. She is learning about early childhood directly by discovering the world anew with her young son and daughter.

Joanne Golann

Assistant Professor

Joanne Golann is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations. She is interested in how children acquire different cultural “toolkits” through their experiences at home and at school. She enjoys watching her own young kids learn new skills and habits!

Zitsi Mirakhur

Graduate Student

Zitsi is a Ph.D. student who came to graduate school after working as a high school science teacher. Her experiences as a teacher made her realize she wanted to also understand how families help their children succeed in school. When she is not at school, Zitsi can be found reading novels, doing yoga, or watching The West Wing.

Laura Di Panfilo

Project Manager

Laura Di Panfilo is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and currently works as a hospital chaplain and enjoys offering spiritual and emotional care to people who are in need. She is also interested in exploring how gender impacts religious experience. In her free time she enjoys teaching and practicing yoga.

Catherine Thomas


Catherine Thomas is an independent consultant whose background is in infant development and early intervention. She works for The Danielson Group, which seeks to advance the understanding of Charlotte Danielson’s concepts in the educational community, connect them to other areas of knowledge, and enhance the professional practices of educators to positively impact student learning.

Mario Yepes-Baraya


Mario Yepes-Baraya, PhD, is an independent consultant with experience in educational research and evaluation. In the past 15 years he has worked with teachers and school districts to improve reading, science and mathematics teaching and learning. He became interested in the NJFS project and began working as a volunteer in the fall of 2017. He believes that understanding how culturally diverse families communicate with their children is an important step in improving learning and teaching in and out of school.

Research Assistants

Jazmyn Blackburn

Undergraduate Student

Jazmyn is a Junior in the Sociology department, with certificates in Cognitive Science, Urban Studies, French Language & Culture, and Teacher Prep. She entered the field of sociology with a background and interest in ecology and animal behavior; after studying animals in their ecological environments, she became intrigued by how people behave in their urban environments. She is interested in community development in urban neighborhoods, particularly concerning children and youth. She works closely with the Princeton University Pace Center for Civic Engagement as a project leader and board member for the Community House programs. She aspires to work on urban education policy in the future and shed positive light on urban working class communities.

Kasia Kalinowska

Undergraduate Student

Kasia Kalinowska is a junior in the History Department, concentrating in the History of Science, with a certificate in Global Health and Health Policy. Her academic interests and research lie at the intersection of medical history and sociology, particularly concerning reproductive and women's health. She has worked with the Social Intervention Group of Columbia's School of Social Work evaluating a microfinance HIV intervention program in Kazakhstan and is currently a student fellow with the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination Women in the Global Community Project. She is excited to be spending her upcoming summer in Zithulele, South Africa as a student researcher at the Jabulani Rural Health Foundation. On campus, Kasia sings in the women's a cappella group The Wildcats, performs in student-run and departmental theatre productions, and is a volunteer with the CONTACT crisis hotline.

Kitty Moraes

Undergraduate Student

Kitty is a junior in the sociology department. She is particularly intrigued by the role of education in reducing inequality and how different individuals associated with a child's education, such as parents, teachers, and counselors, contribute to each student's success. Her other interests include social networks, public policy, statistics, and machine learning. She aims to combine her two passions of statistics and sociology by using data science to make a positive impact by identifying problems and solutions in society. On campus, she is a member of Princeton Running Club and also serves on the Princeton Latinos y Amigos Executive Board.

Kevin Vollrath

Ph.D. Student

Kevin Vollrath is a Ph.D. student at Princeton Theological Seminary in Religion and Society. He focuses on the ethics and politics of the empowerment of people with developmental disabilities, among broader philosophical and theological questions around disability. In his free time, Kevin enjoys long-distance running and playing classical piano.

All of the individuals who are working on the New Jersey Families Study are connected with Princeton University as faculty, students, or researchers in other capacities. Conducting research in an ethical manner is important to every member of our team, and all team members have undergone ethics training.

Project Alumni

Carey Camel

Undergraduate Student

Carey is a junior in the Sociology Department at Princeton University with certificates in the Theater and Spanish programs. His research interests include ethnographic methodologies and interaction behaviors. During his down time, Carey enjoys making music with the Princeton Katzenjammers a cappella group as their director and performing with the Princeton University Players theater group.

Kyle Chan

Graduate Student

Kyle is a Ph.D. student in Sociology from Los Angeles. His research focuses on economic development in countries such as China and India. In his free time, Kyle loves to hike and cook with friends.

Vivian Chang

Graduate Student

Vivian is an MPA student in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She has worked with families while at the School District of Philadelphia. She has also conducted grassroots outreach to Latino and immigrant families in Illinois. She is interested in how to effect sustainable change against systems of class and race.


LaTasha Holden

Graduate Student

LaTasha Holden is a Ph.D. candidate in Cognitive Psychology, working with Andrew Conway and Stacey Sinclair. Before Princeton, Tasha received dual degrees in Psychology (disciplinary honors) and Art History from UNC Greensboro. Awarded as 2012’s “Distinguished Graduate,” she earned an M.A. in Experimental Psychology from Towson University. Her current research explores mechanisms underlying stereotype threat aiming to mitigate the effect based on cognitive and social interventions. Tasha is interested in several aspects of inequality: from education and achievement, in addition to socioeconomic status and housing. Her interest in these topics is how she discovered the NJ families’ project and later became part of the research team.

Stephanie C. Merryfield

Master of Divinity

Stephanie, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, is an institutional ethicist, and her work is primarily in anti-racism and the advancement of women. Her innovative curriculum helps organizations consider disparities in health outcomes, life-span, accumulation of wealth, the achievement gap, and generational poverty, while exploring multiple facets of Critical Race Theory.

Prianka Misra

Undergraduate Student

Prianka is a Senior at Princeton University in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She is focusing on education policy in developing and international contexts, has studied education systems during her semester abroad at the University of Cape Town, and is writing her Senior Thesis on Sexual Violence Against Female Secondary School Learners in South Africa. She is also involved in Naacho (Princeton's South Asian Dancing Group), The Daily Princetonian, and the Pace Council for Civic Values.

Chiamaka Onwuzlike

Undergraduate Student

Chiamaka is a senior in the Sociology Department with a certificate in Global Health at Princeton University. She is interested in studying the interactions between race and class. She loves working with children and hopes to one day become a pediatrician.


Briana Payton

Undergraduate Student

Briana is a junior pursuing a major in Sociology, with minors in African American Studies, American Studies, and Spanish Language and Culture. Her research interests are mainly focused on the relationship between racial identity formation and institutional inequity. On campus, she is involved in Black affinity groups, campus Christian fellowships and different mentorship programs that serve underclassmen. She also enjoys singing in the gospel choir and going out to eat frozen yogurt with friends in free time.

Yaritza Perez-Hooks

Graduate Student

Yaritza is a Ph.D. student in Psychology and Social Policy. As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, she worked in various labs, including: a baby lab, a social psychology lab, a marital research lab, and a family and teens research lab. She is interested in using her research to promote and encourage prosocial, healthy, and positive attitudes and behaviors.

Elisa Steele

Undergraduate Student

Elisa is a junior in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University with a focus on education policy. She has volunteered with pre-school aged children and high school aged students preparing for college admissions through the Princeton based Brooklyn College Awareness Trip and Matriculate advising program. She is also a varsity track athlete as well as a member of the Shere Khan A Capella group.