Studying effects of child stress extended by NSF grant

PULLMAN – The connection between a child’s stress level and the child’s future may become clearer following additional research to be funded by a new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Robert J. Quinlan, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University (WSU), is the lead investigator for an NSF grant funded in tandem with an NSF project headed by Mark V. Flinn, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri, Columbia (MU).

The team’s study site is an undisclosed village within the St. David Parish on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

Robert Quinlan discusses family life with a grandfather and mother of one household on Island of Dominica.

Flinn began the Dominica study in 1987. His testing of children’s stress level hormones started in 1990, and Quinlan joined the research team in 1993 as a graduate student studying under Flinn at MU.

Quinlan’s work focuses on ethnography, demography and social psychology. Flinn’s investigation is centered on human biology and ontogeny. Together the researchers are developing a new understanding of the complex interactions between family life, personal experience, culture and biology in relation to how children develop. Specifically, they are investigating ways that stress impacts a child’s later life.

“We don’t know much about the environmental influences on reproductive development and sexual behavior,” said Quinlan. “We’re thinking stress hormones are playing an important role, and we suspect most of the impact is happening before about age 7. If we can understand the specifics of early childhood family environment and how that’s affecting development, especially sexual development, we will be in a better position to prevent undesirable outcomes such as teen pregnancy,” Quinlan said.

A Dominica family involved in the 2004 study.

“The research is not complete, but we believe it involves unresponsive parenting. If we ultimately determine that unresponsive parenting is the mechanism that is stressing children out, parents, teachers and daycare providers could be trained to help buffer children from these kinds of things. Early interventions could have a fairly dramatic impact on things such as teen pregnancy. That in turn could have an economic and educational impact,” Quinlan said.

The newly awarded WSU grant totals $174,000 over three years. Together the independently controlled grants for both universities total about $285,000. Quinlan is the lead investigator for the WSU grant. Also named as participants on the WSU grant are Marsha B. Quinlan, whose appointment as assistant professor of anthropology at WSU begins this August, and Bruce J. Ellis, associate professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona.

The study also offers training and field experience for American graduate students and Dominican students.

Knowledge gained from the research and part of the NSF funding will be used to create a parenting curriculum for rural Caribbean people. Additionally, funds will allow the region to hire an intern specializing in family and community medicine.

According to Robert Quinlan, the amount of data collected already is formidable. He said because of Flinn’s work, the team has accumulated the largest sample, naturalistically and longitudinally, of child hormone stress data in the world. He expects the findings of his research to be released in a series of publications, which will likely begin in 2008.

Robert Quinlan earned his Ph.D. and M.A. in anthropology from MU in 2000 and 1995 respectively and his B.A. cum laude from the University of Memphis in 1992.

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