Edith Chen

Professor of Psychology


Edith Chen’s research seeks to understand why poverty is associated with poor physical health outcomes in children, with a focus on the psychological and biological mechanisms that explain these relationships. She is also interested in questions of resilience—that is, why some children who come from adversity manage to thrive and maintain good profiles of health.

For her research, Chen has received honors including the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Health Psychology, the Young Investigator Award from the Society of Behavioral Medicine, and the Donald K. Routh Early Career Award from the Society of Pediatric Psychology.

Prior to coming to Northwestern, Chen was the Canada Research Chair in Health and Society at the University of British Columbia, and she has also been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Current Research

Foundations of Health Research Center. Low socioeconomic status (SES) has consistently been linked to poor physical health outcomes for both children and adults—they are two times more likely to be hospitalized, 1.8 times more likely to be in poor health, and 1.5 times more likely to die than their higher- SES peers. These are not just an effect of poverty: Even as SES increases, the prevalence of poor health outcomes persists. A team led by Edith Chen and Greg Miller are investigating the relationship between SES and health effects. To this end, Chen and Miller are establishing a new center at Northwestern, the Foundations of Health Research Center, to explore the relationship between social factors and physical health across the life span for children and adults. They will study psychosocial and biological pathways, like family relationships and the immune system, that link the social world to disease outcomes. Many projects are being planned, such as a study of the social and lifestyle factors that affect babies’ development during pregnancy. Two National Institutes of Health R01 grants support the research center.

Socioeconomic Status and Asthma. This project seeks to identify multilevel contributors to asthma disparities in youth. Specifically, Chen and her colleagues seek to explain why youth with low socioeconomic status (SES) experience worse asthma outcomes through identifying both social and physical environment factors at the neighborhood and family levels, as well as individual psychological factors that contribute to asthma morbidity. Simultaneously, the researchers are attempting to link these factors to multiple levels biologically—at the organ, cellular, and genomic levels—to create plausible explanations of how broader contextual factors can alter biological pathways that lead to worse cases of clinical asthma in youth.

Resilience in Youth. Confronting adversity typically leads to worse health outcomes, so why do some youth who confront adverse events such as growing up in low-SES circumstances remain in good health? Chen and her colleagues are interested in understanding this subgroup of youth by characterizing the youths’ psychosocial environments and qualities that could contribute to the promotion of long-term resilience in their physical health. 

Volunteering and Health. Volunteering is clearly beneficial for the targeted recipients, and volunteering also has clear mental health benefits for volunteers. Can volunteering, however, also be good for one’s physical health? Chen and her team are exploring this question by engaging youth in volunteer programs and studying how their cardiovascular risk profiles change as a result of volunteering.

Selected Publications

Journal Articles and Book Chapters

Schreier, H., and E. Chen. 2013. Socioeconomic status and the health of youth: A multi-level multi-domain approach to conceptualizing pathways. Psychological Bulletin 139(3): 606–54.

Schreier, H., K. Schonert-Reichl, and E. Chen. 2013. Effect of volunteering on risk for cardiovascular disease in adolescents: A randomized control trial. JAMA Pediatrics 167(4): 327–32.

Chen, E., W. Lee, L. Cavey, and A. Ho. 2013. Role models and the psychological characteristics that buffer low socioeconomic status youth from cardiovascular risk. Child Development 84(4): 1241–52.

Chen, E., and G. E. Miller. 2012. Shift-and-persist” strategies: Why being low in socioeconomic status isn’t always bad for health. Perspectives on Psychological Science 7(2): 135–58.

Chen, E., and G. E. Miller, M. Lachman, T. Gruenewald, and T. Seeman. 2012. Protective factors for adults from low childhood socioeconomic circumstances: The benefits of shift-and-persist for allostatic loadPsychosomatic Medicine 74(2): 178–86.

Chen, E. 2012. Protective factors for health among low socioeconomic status individualsCurrent Directions in Psychological Science 21(3): 189–93.

Chen, E., R. Strunk, A. Trethewey, H. Schreier, N. Maharaj, and G. E. Mille. 2011. Resilience in low socioeconomic status children with asthma: Adaptations to stressJournal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 128(5): 970–76.

Chen, E., G. E. Miller, M. Kobor, and S. Cole. 2011. Maternal warmth buffers the effects of low early life socioeconomic status on pro-inflammatory signaling in adulthoodMolecular Psychiatry 16(7): 729–37.

Miller, G. E., E. Chen, and K. Parker. 2011. Psychological stress in childhood and susceptibility to the chronic diseases of aging: Moving towards a model of behavioral and biological mechanismsPsychological Bulletin 137(6):959–97.

Chen, E., S. Cohen, and G. E. Miller. 2010. How low socioeconomic status affects 2-year hormonal trajectories in childrenPsychological Science 21(1): 31–37.

Miller, G. E., E. Chen, A. Fok, H. Walker, A. Lim, E. Nicholls, S. Cole, and M. Kobor. 2009. Low early-life social class leaves a biological residue manifested by decreased glucocorticoid and increased proinflammatory signalingProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(34): 14716–21.

Chen, E., R. Strunk, L. Bacharier, M. Chan, and G. E. Miller 2010. Socioeconomic status associated with exhaled nitric oxide responses to acute stress in children with asthmaBrain, Behavior, and Immunity 24(3): 444-50.

Schreier, H. M., and E. Chen. 2010. Longitudinal relationships between family routines and biological profiles among youth with asthmaHealth Psychology 29(1): 82-90.

Miller, G. E., E. Chen, and S. Cole. 2009. Health psychology: Developing biologically plausible models linking the social world and physical healthAnnual Review of Psychology 60:501–24.