Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Eva Telzer

University of North Carolina

Research Focus
Eva Telzer’s research seeks to investigate how the sociocultural context influences the neurobiology of adolescent behavior and adjustment by (1) examining neural development within a social context; (2) focusing not just on adolescence as a time of vulnerability but also a time of opportunity when key social relationships and adolescent neural flexibility can guide adolescents towards adaptive decision making and positive outcomes; and (3) using a cultural lens to carefully unpack interactions between culture and biology. Collectively her work demonstrates both the challenges and benefits of social relationships and highlights the value of using bio-behavioral methodological tools to examine how biological and neural processes work in concert with social processes to shape the developing adolescent.

My plans for the fellowship period
My research plans focus on conducting work at the cutting edge of the integration of adolescent development, culture, social relationships, and neuroscience. The proposed project will examine the seemingly paradoxical link between prosocial and risk-taking behavior in adolescence – how is it that adolescence can be characterized by both positive (i.e., peaks in prosocial behavior) and negative (i.e., peaks in health-compromising risk taking) behavior? The intersection of prosocial and risk-taking behaviors, or Prosocial Risk Taking, challenges the widely-supported model of adolescence as a period of heightened vulnerability by suggesting that traditionally negative behaviors, like risk taking, could foster positive development if those risks are taken to benefit others. The proposed research seeks to examine how the intersection of prosocial and risk-taking behaviors changes across the adolescent years to predict school adjustment. By moving beyond traditional methods examining risk taking and prosociality separately and focusing instead on whether developmental trajectories in these behaviors and the neural circutry supporting them is similar or divergent, we may gain a more nuanced understanding of the complex psychosocial and neurobiological factors that influence positive adolescent adjustment.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

This study examines how traditionally negative behaviors (risk taking) may be channeled into positive, health promoting, prosocial behaviors. We will gain insight not only into how adolescents learn to relate to others and help others, but also into how to optimize risky tendencies in prosocial and positive ways. Learning to engage in prosocial risk taking can promote social and emotional competence to better excel in school both academically and interpersonally. By combining innovative, multimethod techniques, and recruiting a low SES, ethnically diverse, rural sample of american adolescents, the proposed work has the potential to promote opportunities for positive school adjustment among underrepresented youth who are at highest risk for school disengagement. In our sample, the district average for proficiency in mathematics and reading is extremely low (18% and 41% respectively), with only a 70% graduation rate. Thus, identifying mechanisms that support opportunities for positive school adjustment among traditionally underrepresented, rural youth is sorely needed.