“Baby, you just have to listen.” Tockie Hemphill’s grandmother gave this advice when Hemphill first began her leap into research as a Combination of Institutions star search scholar at Mississippi State University in 1995.
Hemphill, a Rust College sophomore at the time, called her grandmother after feeling overwhelmed with manuscripts and literature reviews, but she decided to take her grandmother’s suggestion to “listen.” Through continuing to talk and listen to mentors and other researchers, she found a love and understanding for the world of research.
“It was a tough experience that summer, but it was an experience that I needed. It was my first real exposure to research,” Hemphill said.
She now holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Rust College and a master’s in counselor education from MSU. Her research interests in many ways stem from family. She’s spent time counseling veterans through vocational decisions—work that felt particularly meaningful because of her own family’s military background. As a child she watched her grandmother care for the elderly, and now Hemphill is pursuing a doctoral degree in functional foods with MSU’s Department of Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion to grow her expertise in healthy aging.
“My grandmother was a house cleaner by occupation, but she also took care of aging adults in our family and other families. She always said if you wanted to make her mad, mess with a baby or older individual,” Hemphill said.
In addition to her studies, Hemphill is a project manager at the MSU Social Science Research Center working on projects ranging from early childhood education and health advocacy to aging. On many of these projects, Hemphill serves as an evaluator.
“Evaluation is really important, and I’m not sure if it is always understood. I think people assume we’re going to tell them what they’ve done wrong or get them in trouble, but the evaluation is about the process,” she said.
As the evaluator, she seeks to help programs become as effective as possible. With each evaluation, she sees an opening to leave an impact across Mississippi.
“I enjoy the idea that policy and systems could be changed based on evaluation. It’s another place where evaluation really comes in strong. Policy changes are important because that can affect even more people,” she said.
Within her Ph.D. studies, she also hopes to become proficient in translational research, which is another way to understand and work in policy. She wants to be prepared to translate scholarly and medical writings into a more applicable format.
“People are living to older ages, but longevity does not mean better health. I want to help people understand and be able to live longer, healthier, satisfied lives. There are so many disparities. I want to help close those gaps,” she said.
Hemphill engages her interests in practical ways also. She often volunteered at nursing homes and childcare centers with her own daughters when they were growing up. Currently she and 27-year-old Nadja and 16-year-old Victoria are in the process of setting up a nonprofit to assist domestic abuse victims.
Although her efforts have evolved since she was first in college, Hemphill continues to follow the legacy and advice of her grandmother, listening to others to help serve the communities she’s passionate about.
“I love the work. It impacts Mississippi, but not only Mississippi. There are global things happening at our center. It makes a huge impact,” she said.