by Megan Zhang
Prior to moving to New York, Eric received his bachelor’s degree from the program for Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science at the University of Michigan. After graduating, he worked in a neuroimaging laboratory at the University of Michigan and investigated brain changes that occur in response to attachment-based parenting interventions provided to economically disadvantaged families. Eric is now a doctoral student doing research with the Neuroscience and Education Lab. Read on for a Q&A with Eric!
As a doctoral student, what are some of your main research questions?
Eric: Generally, I am very interested in socioeconomic disparities in health. I’m interested in the ways in which psychological and biological processes are affected by, and interact with, one’s socioeconomic context to influence behaviors, emotions, and cognition in humans and non-human animals.
In addition, I am interested in development not only across one’s lifespan, but also across generations. For instance, research with humans and non-human animals has shown that stress is transmitted inter-generationally, from parents to their offspring. From this research, parents have been conceptualized as conduits through which information about the environment is transmitted via parenting behaviors to offspring in order that offspring develop and learn to effectively navigate within their specific environmental context. Parenting, then, may be one mechanism through which socioeconomic conditions affect health.
Can you briefly explain what you’ve discovered in terms of how biology influences parenting strategies?
Eric: There is a lot of previous work showing that there are several hormonal and neural systems in our bodies that regulate parenting behaviors. In a paper that I am currently writing with others, we are investigating how poverty-related stressors are associated with alterations in a hormonal system called the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a well-studied system involved in responding to physical and psychological stress. Additionally, we are investigating the ways in which stress-related alterations in the HPA axis are correlated with parenting behaviors in human mothers.
What is an example of a good parenting strategy that would lead to positive cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes in children?
Eric: I would say first that parenting must always be understood with respect to context; it is very difficult to define parenting practices as “good” or “bad”. In a similar way, “positive” cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes in children must also be defined within context. As an example, high and sustained physiological and/or emotional reactivity in children may be labeled as “negative” in a context that does not necessitate such hyper arousal. Take the same phenotype of high reactivity and situate it now within a highly disadvantaged and violent context, and one could argue that this phenotype holds a “positive” or adaptive quality within that environment, in that highly reactive children may be better prepared to respond to danger or threats in their environment than less reactive children. Thus, what designates an outcome as positive is context-dependent.
Given these distinctions, I would say that a good parenting strategy would be one that prepares children for optimal development within their own environmental context and to move flexibly between different future contexts.
What first made you interested in developmental research?
Eric: I suppose it was my own upbringing that first got me interested in contexts of development. I grew up in an economically advantaged suburb of Detroit, Michigan. My grandfather, with whom I was very close, lived downtown in the city of Detroit and I think it was through my experiences with him in the city at an early age that I was first made aware of the large socioeconomic disparities that exist. Especially striking was, and still is, the relatively small amount of geographic space that separates the socioeconomically advantaged from the very disadvantaged in Detroit metropolitan area.
Where do you see your career headed five years down the road?
Eric: In five years I hope to be in the process of completing a post-doc and applying for faculty positions at a research university.
Thanks for sharing your story, Eric. Keep doing awesome work at NEL!