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Edith Chen

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Chair, Professor of Psychology, and Co-Director of the Foundations of Health Research Center

PhD, Clinical Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1998

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. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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: Across the SES spectrum as SES declines, health outcomes worsen. A team led by Edith Chen and Greg Miller is investigating the relationship between SES and health effects. To this end, Chen and Miller have established the Foundations of Health Research Center at Northwestern, to explore the relationship between social factors and physical health across the life span in children and adults. The center conducts numerous studies that link the social world to disease outcomes, several of which are described below. 

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 how is it that 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. In this research, she focuses on factors such as coping strategies and social networks. 

Mentoring and Health. At-risk youth benefit from having mentors, but these effects have largely been studied in the academic and behavioral domains. Chen and her team are conducting a study to expand this focus to physical health by testing whether mentors can improve cardiovascular risk profiles among low-SES mentees. In addition, helping others has been found to have benefits for the physical health of the helper as well.  Thus the researchers are also investigating whether serving as a mentor can have benefits for cardiovascular profiles among youth mentors.

Skin-Deep Resilience. Chen and her colleagues find that there are some limits to resilience. For youth of color exposed to high levels of economic hardship but who show high levels of striving, positive academic and behavioral profiles are noted.  However, at the same time these youth also show risky physiological profiles, a phenomenon these researchers have labeled “skin-deep resilience.” Chen and her colleagues are conducting studies to better understand the factors that contribute to skin-deep resilience and the developmental trajectory of skin-deep resilience.

Selected Publications

Journal Articles and Book Chapters

Chen, E., G. H. Brody, & G. E. Miller. 2022.  What are the health consequences of upward mobility?  Annual Review of Psychology, 73, 599-628.

Chiang, J. J., P. H. Lam, E. Chen, & G. E. Miller. 2022. Psychological stress during childhood and adolescence and its association with inflammation across the lifespan: A critical review and meta-analysisPsychological Bulletin, 148, 27–66.

Chen, E., G. H. Brody, T. Yu, L. C. Hoffer, A. Russak-Pribble, & G. E. Miller. 2021.  Disproportionate school punishment and significant life outcomes: A prospective analysis of Black youthPsychological Science, 32, 1375-1390. 

Chen, E., P. H. Lam, E. D. Finegood, N. A. Turiano, D. K. Mroczek, & G. E. Miller. 2021.  The balance of giving versus receiving social support and all-cause mortality in a US national sampleProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118, e2024770118.

Chen, E., T. Yu, R. Siliezar, J. N. Drage, J. Dezil, G. E. Miller, & G. H. Brody. 2020.  Evidence for skin-deep resilience using a co-twin control design: Effects on low-grade inflammation in a longitudinal study of youthBrain, Behavior, and Immunity, 88, 661-667.

Miller, G. E., E. Chen, T. Yu, & G. H. Brody. 2020. Youth who achieve upward socioeconomic mobility display lower psychological distress but higher metabolic syndrome rates as adults: Prospective evidence from Add Health and MIDUS. Journal of the American Heart Association, 9, e015698.

Chen, E., M. U. Shalowitz, R. E. Story, R. Hayen, A. K. K. Leigh, L. C. Hoffer, M. K. Austin, P. H. Lam, G. H. Brody, & G. E. Miller. 2019.  The costs of high self-control in Black and Latino youth with asthma:  Divergence of mental health and inflammatory profiles.  Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 80, 120-128.

Levine, C. S., H.R. Markus, M. K. Austin, E. Chen, & G. E. Miller. 2019. Students of color show health advantages when they attend schools that emphasize the value of diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116, 6013-6018. 

Chen, E., G. E. Miller, T. Yu and G. Brody. 2018. Unsupportive parenting moderates the effects of family psychosocial intervention on metabolic syndrome in African American youthInternational Journal of Obesity 42(4): 634–40. 

Gaydosh, L., K. Schorpp, E. Chen, G. E. Miller, and K. Harris. 2018. College completion predicts lower depression but higher metabolic syndrome among disadvantaged minorities in young adulthoodProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(1): 109–14.