Research News

Adam Receives Lyle Spencer Research Award

Award will be used to study relationship between race-based stress and achievement gaps


Emma Adam
IPR's Emma Adam has revealed racial differences in stress and its association with sleep and health.

IPR developmental psychologist Emma Adam received a $1 million, five-year Lyle Spencer Research Award to study the relationship between race-based stress and achievement gaps.

Adam will use the Spencer Foundation’s largest award to build on her prior work, which revealed racial differences in stress and the impact of perceived discrimination on stress hormones, sleep, and health.

“Race-based stress, including discrimination, is associated with dysregulated stress biology and sleep, which can contribute to problems with cognition and health,” said Adam, professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP). “We’re looking for ways we can reduce those negative impacts, by promoting race-based strengths including greater knowledge of and positive views about one’s racial and ethnic identity.”

Lyle Spencer Research Awards support “intellectually ambitious research.” Committed to strengthening education, the Foundation seeks “the most challenging, original, and constructive scholarship and research” for these awards.

Adam will work with co-principal investigator Adriana Umaña-Taylor, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and IPR social psychologist and co-investigator Mesmin Destin, an expert in youth identity and motivation and assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern’s SESP.

Adam’s previous research suggests that racial differences in the stress hormone cortisol and reduced sleep hours and quality are partially explained by perceptions of racial discrimination and are reduced by having a positive ethnic and racial identity.

In a recent study, Adam’s team introduced the theory of “stress-related circadian dysregulation (SCiD),” which suggests that those under chronic stress have irregular daily cortisol rhythms which may indicate a more general disruption in circadian rhythms that are associated with poor health and difficulties with energy, attention, and cognition.  

Now Adam and her team will measure and test how racial and ethnic stressors affect the stress hormone cortisol, sleep hours, sleep quality, cognition, and academic outcomes in a group of 300 students from a large, racially, and ethnically diverse Midwestern high school, following students for at least four years.

They will also look for ways to improve regulation of stress biology and related academic outcomes. One group of students will be randomly assigned to an eight-week program designed by Umaña-Taylor that promotes developing a positive self- image related to culture, heritage, and race. Another group will receive eight weekly sessions on college and career planning. The researchers will study the impact of the programs on the body’s response to stress, their sleep patterns, student emotional well-being, and academic outcomes such as grades and high school graduation rates.

Adam is one of the world’s leading experts on the psychobiology of stress, sleep, and racial disparities. Her pioneering work focuses on how everyday life experiences—including work, school, family, and peer relationships—influence levels of stress, health, and well-being in parents and their children.

Her research traces the pathways that stress "gets under the skin" to contribute to poor health and affect children's behavioral, emotional, physical, and academic development.

Emma Adam is professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.

This article was originally published by the School of Education and Social Policy.