Campus News Health & Wellness

UGA professor recognized for early career work

Katie Ehrlich

University of Georgia faculty member Katie Ehrlich is a recipient of the 2019 Association for Psychological Science Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions. The award, named for the first elected APS president, celebrates the many new and leading-edge ideas coming out of the most creative and promising investigators who embody the future of psychological science.

Ehrlich, assistant professor in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of psychology, is among eight 2019 recipients of the award, which APS presents annually to individuals who have made transformative early career contributions to psychological science. A developmental health psychologist by training, Ehrlich’s research is focused on social and emotional experiences for children and youth.

One of Ehrlich’s major early contributions is serving as principal investigator on a $2.3 million Director’s New Innovator Award from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, to investigate the social determinants of health in children. The program will implement a new approach to examine how stress exposure is linked to children’s antibody response to vaccination.

“A large body of research focuses on the influence of childhood stressors on physical health in adulthood, and much of this research relies on people retrospectively reporting about experiences that happened decades earlier,” Ehrlich said. “We’re really interested in how stressful experiences might shape physical health in childhood, not just adulthood. But one challenge with this research is that kids tend to be pretty healthy, so it can be difficult to identify markers of health that have meaningful variability. This research will allow us to evaluate whether current stressful life experiences are associated with a dampened response to vaccination in childhood.”

Children who do not produce sufficient antibodies may be susceptible to infection, and Ehrlich hopes this work will add to our understanding of why some children still get sick even though they received the flu shot.

Ehrlich is grateful to be recognized by the Association for Psychological Science but was quick to note that her research is a team effort. “It takes a small village to carry out our studies successfully,” Ehrlich said. “I have excellent graduate students and undergraduate research assistants who keep our projects organized and moving forward, and we rely on numerous faculty and staff across the university, including staff at the Clinical and Translational Research Unit, the Center for Family Research, and the Center for Vaccines and Immunology.”

Now that the flu season is winding down, Ehrlich’s team plans to launch a new longitudinal study to examine how children’s self-regulation and family life are associated with academic functioning, depressive symptoms and inflammatory processes. For the new study, supported by grants from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation and the Jacobs Foundation, Ehrlich will recruit 150 African American youth in the greater Athens area, and hopes to begin data collection this spring.

All the recipients of the Janet Taylor Spence Award will receive their award at the 31st APS Annual Convention, which will be held May 23-26 in Washington, D.C.