Sulzberger Colloquium

Studying Adolescent Stress Biology in Everyday Social Context: How Biology Informs Policy

December 6, 2018
12:00 PM-1:30 PM

In a series of momentary and daily diary studies conducted with adolescents in naturalistic settings, Emma Adam has examined how everyday social experiences affect stress-sensitive aspects of adolescent biological functioning, including stress hormone (cortisol) levels and sleep hours and quality.  In this talk, she highlights the advantages of a naturalistic diary approach, paired with measurement of stress biology for: a) identifying the types of stressors that are most common, and most impactful for adolescents’ daily functioning and long-term wellbeing;  b) revealing mechanisms by which these experiences “get under the skin” to affect adolescent health and educational outcomes; and c) informing social policies aimed at altering social contexts in ways that are promotive of adolescent health and performance.  Adam provides examples of social factors that her research team has found to alter stress biology, such as loneliness, family stress, financial stress, and exposure to violence and discrimination, and the stress of standardized testing.  She will introduce the concept of “stress-disparities” as one pathway to socioeconomic and health disparities, and discuss (with input from her expert audience) the extent to which research on biological stress disparities may be useful in informing and influencing social policy.

Emma Adam is an applied developmental psychobiologist who has been with Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy since 2000. She studies how everyday life experiences in home, school, and work settings influence levels of perceived and biological stress in children, adolescents, and young adults. Her work traces the pathways by which stress “gets under the skin” to contribute to youth outcomes. By using noninvasive methods such as measurement of the stress-sensitive hormone cortisol, and measurement of sleep hours and quality, Adam is identifying the key factors that cause biological stress in children and adolescents, and the implications of biological stress for daily functioning, emotional and physical health, cognition, and academic outcomes.

Adam received her Ph.D. in child psychology from the University of Minnesota and an MA in public policy from the University of Chicago.