Emma Adam

Professor of Human Development and Social Policy


Adam received her PhD in Child Psychology from the University of Minnesota and an MA in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. An applied developmental psychobiologist, Emma Adam has been with Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy since 2000. She studies how everyday life experiences in home, school, and work settings influence levels of perceived and biological stress in children, adolescents, and young adults. Her work traces the pathways by which stress "gets under the skin" to contribute to youth outcomes. By using noninvasive methods such as measurement of the stress-sensitive hormone cortisol, and measurement of sleep hours and quality, she is identifying the key factors that cause biological stress in children and adolescents, and the implications of biological stress for daily functioning, emotional and physical health, cognition, and academic outcomes.  

Adam’s work has revealed racial and socioeconomic disparities in cortisol and sleep, with potential implications for understanding disparities in health and attainment. Adam’s recent theoretical models and current program of research are focused on understanding the impact of race-based stress on youth stress biology and developmental outcomes. She is currently testing several interventions aimed at improving youth health and academic outcomes by reducing perceived stress, regulating stress biology, and promoting race-based coping resources, such as a strong ethnic and racial identity. 

Adam is a member of the Society for Research in Child Development, the Society of Research on Adolescence, the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology, and the American Educational Research Association. Adam’s research has been supported by multiple institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Sloan Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation. Adam was a William T. Grant Faculty Scholar and received the Curt Richter Award from the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology. Her latest research on race-based disparities in stress and academic outcomes is funded by a Lyle Spencer Research Award from the Spencer Foundation. 

Current Research

Biology, Identity and Opportunity (BIO) Study.  In this project, funded by the Lyle B. Spencer Research Grant from the Spencer Foundation, Adam, along with IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin and Adriana Umaña-Taylor from the Harvard University School of Education, 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.  Students will be recruited in the 9th grade and followed throughout high school. Adam and her team will also work to improve regulation of stress biology and related academic outcomes through application of a random-assignment intervention. 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 look at the impact of the the programs on stress biology and sleep, student well-being, and academic outcomes such as grades and high school graduation rates. 

Stress and Testing Study. In a study funded by the Spencer Foundation, Adam and several collaborators, including IPR education economist David Figlio and former IPR graduate research assistant Jennifer Heissel, are examining how children respond biologically to the stress of standardized testing. Heissel, Adam, and Figlio are examining whether children’s stress hormone levels are altered during high-stakes standardized testing time periods, as compared to non-test and low-stakes testing time periods. They will also examine whether non-school based stressors (e.g. neighborhood stress) affect children’s stress hormones, and whether they exacerbate the effects of school-based stress. Finally, they will test whether stress hormone levels predict students’ academic performance and emotional wellbeing. Analyses are in progress; initial results demonstrate that students showed significant elevations in cortisol, above baseline, in both medium and high-stakes testing weeks. Younger students (3rd and 4th graders) showed notable elevations the morning of their internal, medium-stakes tests; these represented the first major tests these younger students had taken in their schooling. Older students (6th through 8th grades) showed elevations in cortisol across much of the waking day in response to the PARCC testing, relative to the non-testing week. Larger increases in cortisol from pretest to the PARCC testing week were associated with worse performance on the PARCC exam in mathematics, but no significant differences in performance in English language arts or science.

Histories of Perceived Discrimination and Health. In a project funded by an NIH Grand Opportunities award, Adam and colleagues are examining 20 years of prospective data, gathered from adolescence through young adulthood, to understand how histories of exposure to perceived racial/ethnic discrimination relate to a newly gathered set of biomarkers of stress and health in young adulthood. Detailed information on exposure to race-related and nonrace-related stressors, as well as measures of family functioning and racial/ethnic identity and coping are available over a 20-year period. These are being related to a wide range of stress-sensitive biological measures in young adulthood, including measures of gene expression relevant to the regulation of biological stress. Additionally, the study includes a seven-day diary study examining how current perceptions of daily discrimination relate to cortisol stress hormone levels and sleep quality, and an experimental protocol examining degree of physiological reactivity to race-related stress. Results indicate that a cumulative developmental history of higher perceived discrimination is associated with flatter cortisol diurnal rhythms and lower overall cortisol levels in early adulthood, which are indicators of chronic stress, and that experiences of discrimination during adolescence have particularly strong effects on adult stress biology. In addition, histories of discrimination help to explain racial-ethnic disparities in cortisol rhythms. On a more positive note, the presence of a strong ethnic and racial identity in adolescence, and particularly in early adulthood, are associated with better-regulated stress biology and higher levels of academic attainment.

Daily Experiences, Stress, and Sleep over the Transition to Adulthood. In this 10-year longitudinal study, funded by NIH and the William T. Grant Foundation, Adam explores the implications of differences in stress exposure for the development of depression and anxiety in adolescents as they leave high school and move into college and work experiences. Life events interviews, questionnaires, and diaries capture changes in adolescents' experiences over this transition. Cortisol stress-hormone measurement, as well as objective measurement of sleep quality (wrist-watch sized "actigraphs") trace the impact of these changes on adolescents' physiology. Yearly clinical interviews assess symptoms and diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorder. Adam is examining whether differences in stress-exposure, stress hormone levels, and sleep quality help us to understand which adolescents remain emotionally healthy and which develop depression and anxiety disorders as they negotiate the transition to adulthood. Results suggest that interpersonal stressors and obtaining fewer hours of sleep are associated with alterations in stress hormone patterns across the day, and greater risk for depression. Results also show that, after accounting for the effects of life events, individuals with higher surges in stress hormones in the morning hours are at increased risk of depression over the next two and a half years, and onsets of anxiety disorder over the next four years.

Selected Publications

Heissel, J., P. Sharkey, G. Torrats-Espinosa, K. Grant, and E. Adam. In press. Violence and vigilance: The acute effects of community violent crime on sleep and cortisolChild Development.

Heissel, J., D. Levy, and E. Adam. 2017. Stress, sleep, and performance on standardized tests: Understudied pathways to the achievement gap. AERA Open 3(3): 1–17. 

Adam, E., M. Quinn, R. Tavernier, M. McQuillan, K. Dahlke, and K. Gilbert. 2017. Diurnal cortisol slopes and mental and physical health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychoneuroendocrinology 83:25–41.

Tavernier, R., and E. Adam. 2017. Text message intervention improves objective sleep hours among adolescents: The moderating role of race-ethnicity. Sleep Health: Journal of the National Sleep Foundation 3(1): 62–67. 

Hoyt, L., K. Zeiders, K. Ehrlich, and E. Adam. 2016. Positive upshots of cortisol in everyday life. Emotion 16(4): 431–35. 

Levy, D., J. Heissel, J. Richeson, and E. Adam. 2016. Psychological and biological responses to race-based social stress as pathways to disparities in educational outcomesAmerican Psychologist 71(6): 455–73.

DeSantis, A., E. Adam, C. Kuzawa. 2015. Developmental origins of flatter diurnal cortisol rhythms: Associations of socioeconomic status with cortisol in young adultsAmerican Journal of Human Biology 27(4): 458–67.

Ehrlich, K., G. Miller, N. Rohleder, and E. Adam. 2016. Trajectories of relationship stress and inflammatory processes in adolescence. Development and Psychopathology 28: 127-138. 

Stalder, T., C. Kirschbaum, B. Kudielka, E. Adam, J. Pruessner, S. Wüst, S. Dockray, N. Smyth, P. Evans, D. Hellhammer, R. Miller, M. Wetherell, S. Lupien, and A. Clow. 2016. Assessment of the cortisol awakening response: Expert consensus guidelinesPsychoneuroendocrinology 63: 414-432.

Tavernier, R., S. Choo, K. Grant, and E. Adam. 2016. Daily affective experiences predict objective sleep outcomes among adolescents. Journal of Sleep Research 25: 62-69.

Adam, E., J. Heissel, K. Zeiders, J. Richeson, A. Brodish, E. Ross, K. Ehrlich, D. Levy, M. Kemeny, O. Malanchuk, S. Peck, T. Fuller-Rowell, and J. Eccles. 2015.  Developmental histories of perceived racial discrimination and diurnal cortisol profiles in adulthood: A 20-year prospective studyPsychoneuroendocrinology 62: 279-291.

Frost, A., L.T. Hoyt, A. Chung, and E. Adam. 2015. Daily life with depressive symptoms: Gender differences in adolescents' everyday emotional experiences. Journal of Adolescence 43: 132-141.

Adam, E., S. Vrshek-Schallhorn, A. Kendall, S. Mineka, R. Zinbarg, and M. Craske. 2014. Prospective associations between the cortisol awakening response and first onsets of anxiety disorders over a six-year follow-up. Psychoneuroendocrinology 44: 47–59. 2013 Curt Richter Award Winner.

Pendry, P., and E. Adam. 2013. Child-related interparental conflict in infancy predicts child cognitive functioning in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Child and Family Studies 22(4):502–15.

Sweet, E., A. Nandi, E. Adam, and T. McDade 2013. The high price of debt: Household financial debt and its impact on mental and physical health. Social Science and Medicine 91:94–100.

Adam, E. 2012. Emotion-cortisol transactions occur over multiple time scales in development: Implications for research on emotion and the development of emotional disorders. In Physiological Measures of Emotion from a Developmental Perspective: State of the Science, ed. T. Dennis, K. Buss, and P. Hastings. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 77(2): 17–27.

Gunnar, M., and E. Adam. 2012. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical system and emotion: Current wisdom and future directions. In Physiological Measures of Emotion from a Developmental Perspective: State of the Science, ed. T. Dennis, K. Buss, and P. Hastings. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 77(2): 109–19.

Trawalter, S., E. Adam, P. L. Chase-Lansdale, and J. Richeson. 2012. Concerns about appearing prejudiced get under the skin: Stress responses to interracial contact in the moment and across time. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48(3): 682–93.

Adam, E., L. T. Hoyt, and D. Granger. 2011. Diurnal alpha amylase patterns in adolescents: Associations with puberty and with momentary mood states. Biological Psychology 88:170–73.

Adam, E., L. Chyu, L. Hoyt, L. Doane, J. Boisjoly, G. Duncan, L. Chase-Lansdale, and T. McDade. 2011. Adverse adolescent relationship histories and young adult health: Cumulative effects of loneliness, low parental support, relationship instability, intimate partner violence and lossJournal of Adolescent Health 49(3): 278–86 (NIHMS 260479).

Ludwig, J., L. Sanbonmatsu, L. Gennetian, E. Adam, G. Duncan, et al. 2011. Neighborhoods, obesity, and diabetes—A randomized social experiment. New England Journal of Medicine 365(16): 1509–19.

Adam, E., L. Doane, R. Zinbarg, S. Mineka, M. Craske, and J. Griffith. 2010. Prospective prediction of major depressive disorder from diurnal cortisol patterns in late adolescence. Psychoneuroendocrinology 35(6):921–31.

Adam, E., and M. Kumari. 2009. Assessing salivary cortisol in large-scale, epidemiological research. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34(10): 1423–36.

Adam, E., J. Sutton, L. Doane, and S. Mineka. 2008. Incorporating HPA-axis measures into preventative interventions for adolescent depression: Are we there yet? Development and Psychopathology 20(3): 975–1001.

Adam, E., E. Snell, and P. Pendry. 2007. Sleep timing and quantity in ecological and family context: A nationally representative time-diary study. Special issue on Sleep and Family Processes. Journal of Family Psychology 21(1): 4–19.

Adam, E., L. Hawkley, B. Kudielka, and J. Cacioppo. 2006. Day-to-day dynamics of experience-cortisol associations in a population-based sample of older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:17058–63.

Adam, E. 2006. Transactions among trait and state emotion and adolescent diurnal and momentary cortisol activity in naturalistic settings. Psychoneuroendocrinology 31(5): 664–79.

Adam, E. 2004. Beyond quality: Parental and residential stability and children's adjustment. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13(5): 210–13.

Adam, E., M. Gunnar, and A. Tanaka. 2004. Adult attachment, parent emotion, and observed parenting behavior: Mediator and moderator models. Child Development 75:(1): 110–22.