Jennifer Buher Kane, associate professor in the University of California, Irvine Department of Sociology, passed away on August 14, 2019, following a hard-fought battle against breast cancer. She was 40.
Kane came to UCI in 2015, after receiving her Ph.D. in sociology and demography from The Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and working for four years as a post-doctoral fellow at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Kane conducted innovative and cutting-edge research and was exceedingly productive, publishing prolifically in leading journals and raising more than $1 million in grant funding. She was also highly dedicated to teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, particularly students in the Demographic and Social Analysis (DASA) master’s program. She was promoted to tenure in 2019.
Kane established herself as a leading scholar in the fields of health, family, and social inequality, with the vast majority of her research working to understand the causes of poor perinatal health outcomes and, ultimately, to improve perinatal health among vulnerable populations. Her research was published in prestigious and influential peer-reviewed journals including Demography, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Journal of Marriage and Family, Social Forces, and Social Science and Medicine. In 2018, she was awarded the Kavli Fellowship by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in recognition of her remarkable research contributions as an early career scientist.
One strand of Kane’s research examined how mothers’ early life exposures can affect the birth outcomes of their children. In an exemplary paper, she used longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) to examine how maternal preconception processes are associated with infant birth weight, an important indicator of early life health outcomes. Using structural equation modeling, she found that infant birthweight is shaped by a mother’s early life environment and conditions dating back three generations. That is, she found that infant birth weight is a function of both intragenerational processes (those that unfold within women over time) and intergenerational processes (those that link maternal early life exposures to offspring health). In another exemplary paper, she used longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) to examine the relationship between mothers’ early life socioeconomic status and infant birth weight, finding that this relationship worked through adolescent smoking. Socioeconomic status in early life is associated with a greater likelihood of adolescent smoking which, in turn, reduces infant birth weight. These findings suggested that interventions designed to reduce adolescent smoking could improve infant health outcomes.
In a related strand of research, Kane examined prenatal smoking as an intervention lever, and investigated the neighborhood-level determinants of such smoking. Over several papers, for example, she examined how neighborhood affluence—a concept that is distinct from neighborhood disadvantage—is negatively associated with prenatal smoking. In this work, she suggested that the presence of wealthy residents can attract health-promoting institutions to communities and that these institutions can play a role in smoking cessation.
There are several features that distinguish Kane’s innovative research. First, her research almost always took an interdisciplinary approach. Her research was theoretically and conceptually rooted in the discipline of sociology, but she drew on public health, epidemiology, economics, and the spatial sciences. She also collaborated with scholars across a remarkable variety of disciplines. Second, her research employed rigorous and oftentimes novel methodological strategies with population-based data sets. Third, her research was highly policy relevant, with implications for the development of interventions to improve perinatal health, especially among vulnerable groups in the United States. Motivated in part by on-the-ground observations from her work before graduate school as a social worker and public health educator, Kane constantly challenged herself to make her work as impactful as possible, investing time and energy in learning new tools and methods that would allow her to more rigorously and fully investigate the disparities in health that echo across generations. Most recently, this included new research using social network methods and work with an inter-disciplinary team developing a fetal monitor aimed at advancing stillbirth prevention.
Kane was the recipient of two large grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Health and Human Development (NICHD), especially impressive in an era in which funding has become increasingly competitive. The first of these two grants, a K99/R00, supported Kane’s research on maternal life course origins and infant health. This grant allowed her to garner interdisciplinary expertise and learn new statistical methods to understand the predictors of infant health outcomes. The second of these two grants, an R21, provided support to link administrative birth record data to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a nationally representative sample of individuals in grades 7 through 12 who continue to be followed more than two decades later.
In addition to her research, Kane was instrumental to the School of Social Sciences DASA master’s program. She taught one of the required courses, Methods of Demographic Analysis, and, in doing so, helped to shepherd DASA students through their independent research projects. Kane was also a dedicated and beloved mentor to her undergraduate and graduate student advisees. She was tirelessly devoted to her students, patiently guiding them through their research projects, providing them with constructive and meaningful feedback, and helping them navigate their own career development. She also taught Medical Sociology, an undergraduate course sought after by both sociology majors and pre-med students across the university and one that opened their eyes to the social determinants of health.
Kane is survived by her husband John; her three children, Liam, Brendan, and Declan; her parents, Steve and Cindy Buher; her sister Gretchen (Scott) Cline and their two daughters; and her brother Chad (Stacey) Buher and their three children.
A GoFundMe effort has been established to assist Kane’s husband and three sons with ongoing expenses. If you’re interested in contributing, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/help-jenns-family-with-expenses.
-Kristin Turney and Rachel Goldberg, UCI Sociology Professors