Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Colter Mitchell

University of Michigan

Research focus
As a demographer, Colter Mitchell approaches the interdisciplinary area of human development by focusing on the interconnection of poverty, education, and family context with genetics, epigenetics and neuroscience. He primarily examines how these social and biological factors mediate and moderate each other to influence socioemotional behaviors, cognition, demographic behaviors, and health.

My plans for the fellowship period
I will explore the mediating and moderating influences of genetic and epigenetic profiles on the relationship between early-life social and economic context on adolescent brain structure (e.g., hippocampal volume, connectivity between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex), cognitive and socioemotional development, and academic achievement. Initially this work will rely on data from the US population-based Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing (FFCW) birth cohort study, but a key goal of this research is to examine the findings from FFCW in studies of different ages and in international contexts. My primary interest is in examining how very early environments such as in utero poverty, maternal stress, and poor maternal health as well as very early (0-3 years) exposure to family instability (e.g., divorce), family conflict, harsh parenting, and paternal incarceration are linked to brain, cognitive, and behavioral development through multiple biological pathways. For this research I focus on genes and epigenetic factors (measured twice at ages 9 and 15) of three distinct categories: 1) imprinted genes (unique genetic regions with epigenetic marks inherited from a parent with strong links to fetal physical and brain development), 2) genes with established epigenetic-brain links, and 3) replicated genes related to adult cognition.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Many children, despite their incredible potential, are hindered by their early-life context and experiences. Other children, raised in different contexts, are able to more closely reach their potential. To some degree this has been known for a long time, yet attempts to close these gaps have not worked as well as intended. In part, this is because there are a multitude of mechanisms linking early-life to child and adolescent development, many of which are not well understood. In particular, the degree to which early-life contexts are mediated or moderated by specific biological pathways to influence learning is novel. During my fellowship, I aim to identify contexts and biological mechanisms associated with key measures of youth development such as cognitive ability and socioemotional behavior. Having a better understanding of the biological moderators and mediators that influence learning and development will inform future science and eventually public policies and intervention programs. My hope is that by showcasing the biological implications for these early-life contexts greater attention will be directed to providing environments that allow children to be the most prepared to learn and positively develop.