New professor studies families, changing dynamics

Cassandra Dorius is studying the real-world implications of changing family structures.

Dorius, a new Iowa State assistant professor in human development and family studies, recently researched the impact of children growing up in households where the mother has children from multiple partners, called multi-partnered fertility.

The study found that adolescents who have half-siblings with a different father are 65 percent more likely to have used drugs and 2.5 times more likely to have had sex by the age of 15 than those who have only full siblings.

Dorius conducted the research with Karen Benjamin Guzzo, an assistant professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. The foundation of the study came from Dorius’ dissertation at Pennsylvania State University, when she examined national rates of women who have children with more than one partner.

“We never had national data available, so I spent years coding the data and found out 20 percent of all women have children with more than one person,” she said.

Dorius said her plan is to continue this line of research for the foreseeable future. Now that her research has shown that kids are impacted by the presence of half-siblings, she plans to analyze why this occurs.

She will work with Guzzo to explore differences in maternal behaviors, father and stepfather involvement, and adolescent perceptions of their relationship with their mother to see if these factors explain why having half-siblings with a different father can lead to risky adolescent behavior.

The pair will also look at the long-term implications of growing up in a household with half-siblings, specifically if children from these homes follow the same pattern when they begin having children.

Attention from the media, public

Dorius’ research is resonating with the public.

The findings of her study on half-siblings were presented in August at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City, which spurred national media coverage.doriuscandids2_0

National Public Radio, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Time Magazine have covered her past work, and Huffington Post, Yahoo! Health, and MSN Healthy Living published stories about her most recent study.

Dorius said she thinks people are interested in her research because they see themselves in the statistics.

“People immediately recognize friends and family, or themselves. They want to know how it will affect our kids and our families,” she said. “I also think it is just something that has been understudied. The reason people care is that we just don’t know enough.”

Searching for patterns, answers

Dorius said inquisitiveness drives her research.

“The reason why I do research at all is because I am curious about the world and I like the puzzle behind it,” she said.

She said family dynamics are changing quickly. Research can help to explain why, how, and what effect this will have on future generations.

“Family life is changing dramatically,” Dorius said. “And it is important to understand because it tells us the advice we should give our kids, our students, or our friends.”

Dorius said she is also drawn to studying families because of the opportunity it provides to find new and interesting connections and relationships.

“We have all these common-sense notions,” she said. “For me, it was thinking about a topic that everyone thinks they know so much about – families – and then trying to address things that maybe we don’t actually know so much about.”

At home in human development and family studies

Prior to coming to Iowa State, Dorius was a postdoctoral fellow at the Population Studies Center and the Institute for Social Research at The University of Michigan. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brigham Young University and her doctorate from Pennsylvania State University.

While Dorius’ degrees are in sociology, she said she is thrilled to be a professor in human development and family studies.

“We all care about the same things in this department – families – but we all come at it in a different way,” Dorius said. “We are all bringing different tools to the table. For example, it is useful to know the numbers first, and that is one of the things I bring to the table.”

She said other professors and outreach specialists can use the data that she collects to assist families in the community. This part of Iowa State University’s land-grant mission, to share and apply knowledge learned at the university, was also a draw for Dorius.

“I was really excited to come to Iowa State – it was my top choice for human development and family studies programs,” she said. “So I’m very happy to be here.”

Gong-Soog Hong, professor and chair in human development and family studies, called Dorius an excellent addition to the faculty.

“She brings great energy to our department with expertise in adolescent development and demography, a great research agenda that is applicable and complements HDFS, and a solid knowledge and experience in grant writing,” Hong said.


Cassandra Dorius, assistant professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, 515-294-6316, cdorius@iastate.edu

Gong Soog-Hong, professor and chair, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, 515-294-9659, shong@iastate.edu

Tara Lackey, graduate assistant, College of Human Sciences, 515-294-9424, hsnews1@iastate.edu