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Emma Adam

Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy

PhD, Child Psychology, University of Minnesota, 1998

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 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 diary measures of stress, measurement of the stress-sensitive hormone cortisol, and measurement of sleep hours and quality, she is identifying the key factors that cause emotional and biological stress in adolescents and young adults and the implications of stress for daily functioning, emotional and physical health, cognition, and academic outcomes.  

Adam’s work has revealed racial and socioeconomic disparities in stress, 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, stress biology and developmental outcomes. She is also 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, and the American Psychological Association and is the President-Elect of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology.  Adam’s research has been supported by multiple institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Sloan Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Russell Sage 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 and her research on the impact of mindfulness on youth emotional wellbeing is funded by NIH.  

Current Research

Youth Mindful Awareness Project.  In collaboration with Dr. Richard Zinbarg in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern, and collaborators at UCLA and Vanderbilt, Adam is examining the impact of mindfulness training and use of a mindfulness app on adolescent mood and on symptoms and diagnoses of depression. The study, a multi-phase randomized control trial, is funded by NIH. 

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, is measuring how racial and ethnic stressors affect the stress hormone cortisol, sleep hours, sleep quality, cognition, and academic outcomes in a group of 300 high school freshman.  Students are being recruited in the 9th grade and are followed across 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 exploring one's identity with respect 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 these programs on stress biology and sleep, student well-being, and academic outcomes such as grades and high school graduation rates. 

Histories of Perceived Discrimination and Health. In a project previously funded by NIH, 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. 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, is associated with better-regulated stress biology and higher levels of academic attainment.

Selected Publications

Adam, E. K., S. Collier Villaume, S. E. Thomas, & K. Grant. In Press. Stress and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity in adolescence and young adulthood. In L. Crockett, G. Carlo, & J. Schulenberg (Eds.), APA Handbook of Adolescent and Young Adult Development: APA.

Grant, K. E., J. Carter, E. K. Adam, and Y. Jackson. In Press. Assessment of life events in youth. In E. Youngstrom, M. Prinstein, E. Mash, & R. Barkley (Eds.) Assessment of Childhood Disorders, Fifth Edition. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

Collier Villaume, S., J.E. Stephens, E. E. Nwafor, A. Umaña-Taylor, & E. K. Adam. 2021. High parental education protects against changes in adolescent stress and mood early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Adolescent Health. 1-8.

Stephens, J.E., C.L. Kessler, C. Buss, G. E. Miller, W. A. Grobman, A.E. Border, L. Keenan-Devlin, E. K. Adam. 2020. Early and current life adversity: Past and present influences on maternal diurnal cortisol rhythms during pregnancy. Developmental Psychobiology

Adam, E. K., E.F. Hittner, S.E. Thomas, S. Collier Villaume, & E.E. Nwafor. 2020. Racial discrimination and ethnic racial identity in adolescence as modulators of HPA axis activity. Development and Psychopathology. 32(5). 1669-1684.

Adam, E. K., S. Collier Villaume, and E. Hittner. 2020. Reducing stress disparities:  Shining new light on pathways to equity through the study of stress biology. In L. Tach, R. Dunifon, & D. L. Miller (Eds.). Confronting Inequality:  How Policies and Practices Shape Children’s Opportunities. Washington: APA Books.

Hittner, E. F., and E. K. Adam. 2020. Emotional pathways to the biological embodiment of racial discrimination experiences. Psychosomatic Medicine, 82(4), 420-431. doi:10.1097/psy.0000000000000792

Heissel, J. A., E. K. Adam, J. L. Doleac, D. Figlio, and J. Meer. 2019. Testing, stress, and performance: How students respond physiologically to high-stakes testing. Education Finance and Policy, 1-50.

Doane, L. D., M.R. Sladek, E. K. Adam. 2018. An introduction to cultural neurobiology: Evidence from physiological stress systems. In J. M. Causadias, E. H. Telzer, & N. A. Gonzales (Eds.), The Handbook of Culture and Biology: Bridging Evolutionary Adaptation and Development, pp. 227-254.  Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley.

Heissel, J., P. Sharkey, G. Torrats-Espinosa, K. Grant, and E. K. Adam. 2018. Violence and vigilance: The acute effects of community violent crime on sleep and cortisolChild Development 89(4): e323-e331.