2019 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Katherine Ehrlich

Katherine Ehrlich

University of Georgia

Please briefly describe your research interests.
I am a developmental health psychologist whose research focuses on how social experiences, such as poverty, family experiences, and chronic stress, are associated with mental and physical health across the lifespan. I am also interested in immunologic mechanisms that might help explain how social experiences “get under the skin” to influence health. More recently, my work has broadened to include examination of how various stressors might be linked to the body’s production of antibodies following vaccination. This research provides an in vivo test of adaptive immunity and allows us to examine how life experiences might influence the immune system.

What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?
There were many moments that led to my current program of research. Toward the end of my postdoc, I spent time talking with Drs. Greg Miller and Edith Chen about new health assessments we could include in our studies with children. Children tend to be pretty healthy, so finding measures of physical health that have clinical relevance and meaningful variability can be difficult. One option that sounded intriguing was to use vaccination paradigms, which provide a safe way to examine how well the body responds to virus-like threats. I was lucky to join a university where experts in vaccine research were already conducting studies to evaluate individuals’ antibody production following influenza vaccination. This existing infrastructure and access to supportive collaborators allowed me to pursue projects involving children’s stress exposure and antibody production following vaccination much more quickly than I could had I not been at UGA.

Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?
I’m very excited about our lab’s progress in designing vaccination studies with children and teens. We benefited from collaborators on campus who could help us understand measures of adaptive immunity (a new area for our lab), and we are just beginning to analyze data from the 2018–2019 flu season. Although youths generally have a robust response to vaccinations, we have some preliminary evidence that chronic stressors may reduce antibody production for several influenza strains. We are excited to take a closer look at what kinds of stressors appear to be most toxic for youth, as well as whether there are any protective factors that can offset these stressful experiences.

What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?
Back in 2009, Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser published a paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science in which she described how the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) was “psychology’s gateway to the biomedical future.” She argued that psychologists should work to bridge the gaps between biomedical and social sciences, and she explained that psychologists can gain sufficient competence in immunology to conduct studies that incorporate measures of psychological functioning and the immune system. Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser’s call to pursue interdisciplinary training, in conjunction with encouragement from my mentors Drs. Jude Cassidy and Andres De Los Reyes, gave me the confidence to seek postdoctoral training in PNI research. I was fortunate to be able to work with Drs. Greg Miller and Edith Chen – two luminaries in the field who provided intensive training and who continue to provide support and guidance to this day. At the University of Georgia, Drs. Gene Brody and Steven Beach have fostered a collaborative environment that has enriched my early career development. Suffice it to say that I have benefitted immensely from fantastic mentors at every stage of my training, and I hope to pay this support forward with my trainees.

What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?
My colleagues and I are working on several projects that are all centered on questions about how social experiences shape physical health. One project, in collaboration with Dr. Gene Brody, is a three-generation study of African American families who have been participating in a longitudinal study for nearly 20 years. Children (and their parents) joined this study at age 11, and they are now in their late 20s—and many of them now have children of their own. This study (supported by NICHD) provides a unique opportunity to examine how experiences in one generation, such as parental depression, carry forward to subsequent generations and increase risk for early signs of health problems (e.g., obesity).

A second project we’re launching this year, with support from the Jacobs Foundation and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, will investigate whether hints of “skin-deep resilience” emerge in childhood. Several studies now have documented the physical wear and tear of individuals who come from low-socioeconomic-status backgrounds. To date, these studies have included young adults (or older), and we are interested in whether this pattern emerges earlier in development. Ultimately, we want to identify when these health disparities begin to emerge so that we can find health-promoting solutions for youth who may be at risk.

Finally, our team has two more cohorts planned for our research on how stressful experiences in childhood and adolescence are related to antibody production following vaccination. We’re grateful to the NIH Common Fund for their support of these studies as part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
I am incredibly honored to receive this award. Truly, though, my research is only possible because of a large network of wonderful collaborators and staff who ensure the projects run smoothly. Our studies require intricate planning and teamwork, and I’m grateful to be able to work with such amazing colleagues to tackle important research questions. I am especially thankful to my supportive and encouraging mentors, who have inspired me to cross disciplines and find collaborative research partnerships. Finally, none of this work would be possible without the tremendous support from my parents, my husband Joe, and friends near and far. It is quite difficult to attain a faculty position these days, and I feel lucky to have found a research home at UGA.