Dr. Katherine Ehrlich (Psychology)
Interviewed by Andrea Horsman
OIBR Fellow Katherine Ehrlich, Assistant Professor with joint appointments in the Department of Psychology and the Center for Family Research, has been a very busy lady. This junior faculty member has recently been awarded three grants totaling close to $2.5 million dollars! All three research projects focus on how children’s social experiences shape their mental and physical health.
Dr. Ehrlich received her B.A. at Washington & Lee University, her Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of Maryland, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University. Dr. Ehrlich’s research, which lies at the intersection of developmental, clinical, and health psychology, focuses on how social experiences, such as early adversity, close relationships, and socioeconomic status are associated with physical health across the lifespan. In addition to utilizing a variety of methods to evaluate social and emotional functioning, her research incorporates a number of health assessments, including clinical health outcomes, measures of cellular function, and adaptive immunity. Dr. Ehrlich is a recipient of pre- and post-doctoral Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards, a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant, an R03 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and was named a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science.
Dr. Ehrlich received $150,542 funding for her NIH R03 (NICHD) proposal entitled “Parental Depression and the Early Origins of Disease Across Three Generations.” When Katie joined UGA in 2016, she began working closely with Dr. Gene Brody (HDFS) and colleagues at the Center for Family Research (CFR) where she got involved in the ongoing longitudinal study of African American families (SHAPE). Youth who joined the study at age 11 are now young adults, and many of them have children of their own.
As part of this grant, Dr. Ehrlich will examine how fluctuations in parents’ (G1) depressive symptoms across a 10-year period are associated with children’s (G2) depressive symptoms and pre-disease risk factors when they reach young adulthood. In addition, they will conduct a pilot study of 60 (G3) children to evaluate links between (G1) and (G2) functioning in relation to (G3) youths’ psychosocial, behavioral, and health measures. This project will set the foundation for recruiting a third generation to the sample, which will then be extended to future projects and will allow them to address questions about the intergenerational transmission of health disparities.
Beginning in January 2019, Dr. Ehrlich will begin work on her Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (NARSAD Young Investigator) grant entitled “Skin Deep Resilience, Proinflammatory Phenotypes, and Depression Risk in Youth” with her postdoc mentors and collaborators Dr. Greg Miller and Dr. Edith Chen with Northwestern University. Also part of the project team is Dr. Gene Brody (HDFS) and Dr. Steve Beach (Psychology). The team has identified an intriguing and initially counterintuitive phenomenon. When studying resilient young adults in longitudinal samples – the participants who, despite adversity, avoided drugs, went to college, and showed few depressive symptoms – were surprisingly not resilient when it came to assessments of their physical health. In fact, these individuals fared worse than their peers, which suggested that the self-control and perseverance it required to “make it” in society was taking a toll on their health.
This research grant is important because studies of “skin deep resilience” have primarily focused on young adults. This project will recruit children (ages 8-14 years old) to examine whether these processes are evident as early as childhood. This developmental question is of particular importance because it will help to establish a time course for when diverging patterns of risk and resilience start to develop. Further, little is known about the underlying physiology that might explain why these resilient individuals develop such poor physical health in adulthood. As part of this study, they will evaluate children’s proinflammatory phenotypes by testing how aggressively their cells respond to bacteria. One hypothesis is that high levels of self-control, while protective for outcomes like academic performance and behavior in the classroom, might be associated with a more aggressive inflammatory response.
Dr. Ehrlich was also recently awarded the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award in the amount of $2,222,879 for her project “Innovative Approaches to the Study of Social Determinants of Health in Children.”
The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports highly innovative research from promising Early Stage Investigators (defined as those within 10 years of completing their terminal research degree or postgraduate clinical training and who have not yet received substantial NIH support). This award is part of the Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which was created to accelerate the pace of biomedical discoveries by supporting exceptionally creative scientists with highly innovative research. The program seeks to identify scientists with high-impact ideas that may be risky or at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process. The program encourages creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas in any area of biomedical research relevant to the NIH mission.
This project began in 2017 when Dr. Ehrlich participated in an UGA Presidential Seed Grant challenge that encourages interdisciplinary research on campus. She submitted an application to study how stressful life experiences might dampen children’s antibody production following influenza vaccination. It was a collaborative project with Dr. Ted Ross, Director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology at UGA. That project was not funded, but the process of putting together the application solidified Katie’s interest in using vaccinations as a way to evaluate how stress might influence children’s immune systems.
Later that year, Katie applied for the NIH New Innovator Award with the same general focus. The grant mechanism appealed to her for a couple reasons. First, the application was unlike other traditional R01 proposals – instead of a tightly focused and clear plan with preliminary data that is submitted for an R01, the New Innovator Award asks you to think about a scientific challenge that you want to address and how you might take a novel approach to solving that problem. No preliminary data are required, nor do they require the specification of a clear experimental plan (and NIH discourages applicants from submitting specific aims).
The New Innovator Award research is important because the examination of links between social stressors and physical health is difficult to do in childhood, in part because children are generally healthy and show few signs of outward disease. This research will allow them to circumvent some of the challenges they’ve previously faced when trying to examine health markers that have little variability or prognostic utility in childhood. They will be looking at children’s response to vaccination as an indicator of physical health – a measure that can be considered an in vivo marker of immune function with clinical health relevance.
The odds of success for winning the NIH New Innovator Award are low. It was determined that, out of 600 funded proposals over the last 11 years, only seven other awardees were from psychology departments. So… congratulations Dr. Ehrlich on this huge accomplishment!
Dr. Ehrlich feels that access to unique resources at UGA were a major part of her grant successes. As a participant of OIBR’s Grant Development Program, she workshopped the project idea throughout Year 1 of the program and those discussions plus the focused time to write allowed her to put forward a competitive proposal. The Clinical and Translational Research Unit (CTRU) is a phenomenal facility, with ample space for data collection (e.g., patient rooms) and the staff to help with the visits. In particular, their nursing team is invaluable for blood draws and vaccine administration. Working with vaccines and evaluating antibody production was completely new for Katie, and she was fortunate to rely on the Center for Vaccines and Immunology center (and director Ted Ross, in particular) to assist with study design, sample assays, and answering all of the questions that pop up with this research.
“In addition to being an incredibly kind and supportive mentor, Dr. Gene Brody (HDFS) has encouraged me so much along the way. Also, the collaborative and supportive nature at CFR has far surpassed my expectations for what it would be like to work at UGA, and as a result of CFR’s support, I have been able to move quickly on these applications. I’m confident that these proposals were funded at least in part because of the support and infrastructure that CFR provides for assisting with research,” said Dr. Ehrlich.
So what are the long term goals for this young investigator? Dr. Ehrlich is interested in how these processes play out over time, both within individuals and across generations. She and Dr. Brody are planning to expand on the R03 project to recruit all of the G3 children in the study so that they can more fully examine how experiences in one generation carry forward to the next. She is also interested in new techniques that will provide better insight into the biological mechanisms that might help explain, in part, how social experiences come to influence health.
When asked what she finds most rewarding about her research, Katie replied, “It’s hard to pick just one part! I love how interdisciplinary and collaborative my work is. There’s always something new to learn and a new potential collaboration on the horizon. I’m also really excited about how our work has the potential to inform interventions and public policy – for me, it brings deeper meaning and more urgency to our work.”
To get updates about the progress on all of these projects, please visit Dr. Katie Ehrlich’s lab The Health and Development Laboratory here.