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Meng-Jung Lin is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology and a Predoctoral Trainee at the Carolina Population Center. CPC intern Ryan Holmes conducted this interview in the spring of 2020.

Q:  Tell me about yourself—how did you land at CPC?

Lin:     I am a sociology PhD student, and my research interests are social stratification and gene-environment interaction. As an undergraduate, I studied sociology and psychology. I’m interested in the biological mechanisms behind behaviors because they seem to be missing from sociological explanations. A faculty member at CPC is the only person studying gene-environment interaction, so that’s why I came here. I’m part of the biosocial program at CPC, which I like because I can consult and meet with others who have similar research interests to me.

I want to locate genes related to outcomes like education, which can be used alongside traditional sociological measures like parental income and education as a predictor of social outcomes.

Q:  The CPC website lists your primary research interest as intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status. Can you elaborate on that?

Lin:     It’s how your parental status transmits to your outcomes.

Q:  How strong is the correlation there?

Lin:     There’s a 0.3 or 0.4 correlation coefficient. It explains around 20% of outcomes. I want to measure the biological pathways for that.

Q:  Tell me a bit about your recent publication in Social Science Research.

Lin:     It’s a study of children’s educational attainment between three different cohorts, which are from 1920 to 1931, 1931 to 1950-ish, and 1950-ish to 1965. It compares how parental status and genetic factors influenced educational attainment for those age groups. The finding was that genetically-talented individuals didn’t necessarily need the help of their parents to obtain a good education, while the least genetically-talented people needed highly-educated and rich parents to obtain a high level of education. This relationship was the strongest in the middle cohort (1931–1950ish).

Q:  On your CV, I noticed that you wrote “Socioeconomic and Genomic Roots of Verbal Ability” under “Manuscript Drafts.” Is that what you’re working on now?

Lin:     Yes. We’re using genetic measures like intelligence and other measures like level of education, both from Add Health Data, to explain the verbal ability of teens. Verbal ability as we define it refers to extensiveness of vocabulary. We’ve found that genetic factors only account for one percent of it, which is unsurprising from a sociological perspective. Verbal ability is measured using PPVT in Add Health, which asks participants to recognize words. It works well for our purposes because it’s standardized.

Q:  How do the things you’re studying contradict or support American ideals of meritocracy and the American Dream?

Lin: To some extent, my research supports the idea of meritocracy, but to some extent it doesn’t because rich parents can help you. I think it’s quite complicated. In sociology, people use the concept of potential to describe genetic ability… Some say it’s a good thing if you can realize it. Is it good to have your fate determined at conception?