Katherine Ehrlich’s research lies at the intersection of developmental, clinical, and health psychology and focuses on how children’s relationships and life experiences influence their mental and physical health. In addition to utilizing a variety of methods to evaluate social and emotional functioning, her research incorporates a number of health assessments, including clinical health outcomes, measures of cellular function, and adaptive immunity. Her goal is to better understand how social and environmental stressors “get under the skin” and how protective processes may offset these negative effects.
My plans for the fellowship period
Decades of research highlight the impressive resilience of many children living in poverty—often showing remarkable performance in school, good mental health, and avoidance of risky behaviors despite the lack of supports needed to help children excel. Surprisingly, some counterintuitive evidence in recent years suggests that such resilience may only be “skin deep.” Over the course of the fellowship, I will investigate whether children’s resilience is associated with metabolic dysregulation and evidence of a proinflammatory phenotype (i.e. a higher extent to which immune cells mount an aggressive inflammatory response when exposed to bacteria). Our research team will recruit 150 families from low-income communities to participate in a three-wave longitudinal study. Our hypothesis is that children with higher levels of self-control will exhibit better executive functioning skills, mental health, and academic performance but will also exhibit proinflammatory tendencies and signs of metabolic dysregulation. In addition, we will examine whether certain protective factors (e.g., supportive caregivers, internal assets) may buffer children from the hypothesized health consequences associated with high self-control.
How will my work change children’s lives?
In childhood, resilience in the face of adversity is traditionally measured with psychosocial metrics that reflect children’s abilities to persist in prosocial, goal-directed pursuits and resist temptations to engage in destructive or dangerous behaviors. My colleagues and I are concerned that these definitions of resilience may fail to capture the full scope of how children are affected when faced with difficult life circumstances. Research supported by the Foundation will shed light on whether evidence of “skin deep resilience” emerges as early as childhood and whether there might be naturally occurring protective factors that can buffer children from stressful life experiences. A secondary goal of this project is to explore whether executive functioning and inflammatory processes cluster together in meaningful ways in childhood. My hope is that this research will help inform the development of interventions that can help children in chronically stressful environments find ways to balance the demands of their everyday lives and make self-care a priority.