Third-year doctoral student wins American Society on Aging’s Graduate Student Research Award for research paper, presents on her work on aging documentary

Gerontology doctoral student Elisabeth J. Stam has two good reasons to look forward to “On Aging,” the annual conference of the American Society on Aging coming up in March 2023. Stam will be awarded ASA’s Graduate Student Research Award for her paper on the oral health disparities of older adults in the United States. Stam will also present at the conference on her work for Sages of Aging, a project that resulted in a book and two documentaries profiling 12 pioneering leaders in the field of aging.

Stam’s research paper grew out of a Diversity in Aging Societies class with UMass Boston gerontology professor Jan Mutchler. The topic of dental and oral health intrigues Stam because more older adults are living longer with their natural teeth intact. Her paper is a literature review considering aspects of disparities, inequalities, and obstacles to accessing care for  dental and oral health among older adults, using a life course accumulation perspective.

“In my studies, I have always been drawn to underexplored topics,” Stam says of choosing oral health. She studied Medieval history as an undergraduate at Barnard College, and she chose to research older adults and aging while earning her master’s of social work at Columbia University. Now, as a doctoral student, Stam appreciates being able to conduct interdisciplinary gerontological research and pursue her own intellectual path.

An added bonus: Stam’s namesake, her great grandmother, was a dentist in Paris, France. Studying oral health “is a way to connect with my ancestor whose stories I grew up hearing but I never had the chance to meet.” 

Researching aging’s pioneers

Stam drew on her love of history for her work with Age Wave, a thought leadership company in the field of aging. Beginning as an intern in the summer of 2021, she compiled nearly 300 pages of research on 12 preeminent experts in gerontology. She dug deep, from finding one interviewee’s wedding announcement to another’s typewritten doctoral thesis. Stam’s research helped Age Wave CEO Ken Dychtwald prepare to interview the experts, who include former U.S. Assistant Secretaries for Aging, academic scholars in gerontology and geriatrics, and former leaders of major aging services organizations. The men and women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s reflect in the interviews on their own aging and legacies and on the growth and changes in their field, and they share advice for the next generation of gerontologists.

Age Wave, in partnership with ASA, published a book of the edited interviews and produced two Sages of Aging documentaries — an hour-long version for public television and a 90-minute version for students and professionals serving older adults. Stam is credited as research director for both films. For her ASA presentation, she’ll talk about her work on Sages of Aging, share clips from the documentary, and host a Q&A session with some of the expert interviewees.

Learn more about Sages of Aging

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Stam says of working on Sages of Aging. “I witnessed how these legendary pathfinders are all deep, insightful, introspective thinkers who have a drive to make a consistent difference at a very high level. The field of aging is beyond a passion for them, it’s more of a lifelong dedication, a calling.”

As a trained historian and licensed social worker, Stam loves hearing people’s stories. Her fascination with storytelling has informed her path from history to social work and now gerontology, she says. “Research is another manifestation of storytelling, whether with data or interviews, there is always significance to be gleaned.” As she approaches the dissertation phase of her PhD, Stam is focusing on near-centenarians and centenarians. “I’m very interested in the oldest of older adults and their resilience over a lifetime. What contributes to that longevity and how do we live well?” The best part of gerontology, Stam says, is “learning from society’s historians, our older adults, to better understand our past to inform our present and prepare for our future.”