2012 Janet Taylor Spence Award
University of California, Irvine
What is the focus of your award-winning research?
My research focuses on how disparities in children’s mental and physical health emerge across contexts and over time. The life chances of children vary tremendously by location and early life experiences. For example, a child born in a poor neighborhood can expect to die sooner and spend more of her life afflicted with mental health problems than she would if she was born into relative affluence. Likewise, the boy who is persistently disruptive in class is not only at risk for a life of crime, but is also more likely to suffer from chronic inflammation and subsequent heart disease. By working across disciplines and between countries, and by following children over time, we have been able to isolate early determinants of children’s later well-being and ask how the contexts that children are embedded in can alter their life chances. More recently, my research team has been leveraging new technologies, including mobile-phone surveys and text messaging, to identify daily triggers of adolescent health-risk behaviors. We have also been using online tools, such as Google Street View, to trace the effects of neighborhood settings on child health.
How did you develop an interest in this area?
While completing my master’s degree in criminology, I worked as a court-appointed advocate for adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system. Two reoccurring themes emerged from my time with these adolescents that continue to shape my research program: (1) the mental and physical health needs of these vulnerable adolescents cannot be easily separated, and (2) the behaviors (namely substance use and aggression) that exact the largest toll on adolescent’s future lives are best understood within the family, peer, and neighborhood contexts in which they occur.
Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
While sitting in a café in Poland, Dick Reppucci (my soon-to-be PhD advisor) convinced me that, despite my varied background, I was a psychological scientist at heart. He was right. The years that followed at the University of Virginia provided transformative training in developmental theory and quantitative methods with John Nesselroade and Jack McArdle as well as an invaluable introduction to community psychology and the “power of social settings” to influence individual behavior from Dick Reppucci. When I left Virginia for London, my postdoctoral mentors Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi opened up a world of opportunities and modeled how first-rate science is executed. They continue to provide inspiration, mentorship, and intellectual guidance for my work today. At the University of California, Irvine, I was fortunate to start my career surrounded by entrepreneurial colleagues, including Greg Duncan, Jodi Quas, Jennifer Skeem, and Carol Whalen, and my long-standing collaboration with Marlene Moretti continues to influence how I approach knowledge translation. Looking beyond the borders of psychological science, I have benefited enormously from working with leading thinkers in sociology (Robert Sampson), epidemiology (Clyde Hertzman), criminology (Daniel Nagin), psychology and law (John Monahan), and psychiatry (Edward Mulvey).
What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
Early in my career I was told that the way to make a novel contribution to science was to (1) be brilliant or (2) import innovative approaches from other disciplines into your own. I opted for the second strategy and have learned an incredible amount in the process. I am constantly amazed at the unexpected synergies that emerge when moving across disciplinary boundaries and the innovative ways in which people around the world and across campus are approaching complex problems. I have also learned a great deal from my relationship with the William T. Grant Foundation, an organization that has helped me to stretch into new areas and work outside of my comfort zone. Perhaps most importantly, I have benefited tremendously from working with interdisciplinary study teams, including the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study based in New Zealand and the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study based in the United Kingdom.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
Personally, the news of the award evoked gratitude — to my colleagues who supported the nomination and to my mentors and funders who have taken chances on me and my ideas. Professionally, the news was humbling and inspiring, because I realized that my work would now be associated with Janet Taylor Spence, a scholar who has opened so many doors for women in science through both her discoveries and her career path.