Research at OPR

Research at OPR is now characterized by six signature themes: (1) biosocial Interactions, (2) children, youth, and families, (3) data and methods, (4) education and stratification, (5) health and wellbeing, and (6) migration and development. You may browse by theme or by associate.

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Biosocial Interactions

In 2014, the Office of Population Research (OPR) added a sixth primary research area, Biosocial Interactions. The newest of OPR's primary research areas focuses the interplay between social and biological processes and is coordinated by key person, Noreen Goldman. Other OPR faculty affiliates pursuing work in this area include Jeanne Altmann, Bryan Grenfell, Douglas Massey, Sara McLanahan, and C. Jessica Metcalf. This research area is important because recent work has shown that human outcomes are determined by a complex interplay of social and biological processes. Biosocial research at OPR focuses on three principal topics: allostatic load, epigenetics, and telomere length.

It has long been known that exposure to stress increases allostatic load through the release of cortisol and other steroids into the bloodstream. When exposure to stress becomes chronic (e.g. because of violence and instability within families, neighborhoods, or schools), an excessive allostatic load may be produced, with far-reaching negative effects on health, behavior, and cognition.

New scientific work also indicates that genes are not simply inherited and automatically expressed, but are turned off and on through interactions with the environment. For human beings, the critical environment is social and exposure to advantage or disadvantage because of one's structural position in society can strongly affect gene expression. Indeed, research indicates that methylation triggered by environmental interactions may permanently modify genetic material in ways that can be inherited.

Finally, research on telomeres illustrates how exposure to stressful environments can affect health and wellbeing at the chromosomal level. Telomeres are nucleotide sequences found at the ends of each chromatid. They protect the ends from deterioration and possible mingling with other strands of DNA or RNA. With repeated cell divisions in the course of normal aging, telomeres are progressively shortened, thereby increasing the likelihood of abnormal outcomes and adverse medical conditions. Research shows that exposure to chronic stress can hasten the shortening of telomeres, so once again the social environment becomes critical in determining health through its effect on telomere length.