February 2, 2010

The Scientist: Gary Evans

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When developmental and environmental psychologist Gary Evans, an Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, moved to the woods of Ithaca from his California home, he had two focuses in mind: the Human Ecology school and his children. He found a challenge by his students to look at poverty and education.

Having previously studied development, human health and behavior as a controlled variable, Cornell students urged him to research the mechanism behind the strong correlation between income inequalities and development.

Evan’s recent paper looks at the working memory of college-aged students, who have been followed since the ages of eight or nine. Working memory is a component of short-term memory, like the ability to contain and repeat a phone number. This ability to hold information is directly correlated to academic achievement. In his recent study, individuals from lower income backgrounds generally fared poorly in comparison to their middle class peers.

A possible explanation for this lies in hormones. Hormones secreted by the body when faced with stress have adverse effects on the brain. In animal control studies, the evidence of stress is strong. When it comes to humans, though, stress studies are not as singularly conclusive. It is likely similar.

One stress hormone, Cortisol, may affect the hippocampus, the portion of the brain mainly accredited with short-term memory. Other portions of the brain that see the effects of stress hormones include the prefrontal cortex, where complex maneuvers originate.

Currently, Evans is completing a NIH stimulus grant. The grant funds an extension of his research, allowing him to neuro-image portions of the brains of those who took part in his study. The future goal is to measure structures based on memory data.

Evans cites adoption studies to support a correlation between poverty, health and achievement — children adopted from lower income families into middle class ones retain similar cognitive development to their socioeconomic peers.

As a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Children, Youth and Families Board, Evans advises on policies that affect child development.

“It’s incredibly simplistic to think in terms of ‘no child [left] behind’ that by altering policies you can erase the income gap. It is a worthy goal, one that I strongly agree with,” he said. “One of the implications is that we have to intervene earlier and broader.”

Mexico and Brazil, both with established healthcare, have systems giving cash awards to parents, who do certain things that most middle class and educated parents do anyways. These include continuous school attendance and regular medical checkups. Results show promising gains in nutrition and cognitive growth.

While Evans states poverty does not mean an individual is doomed, his research deems a look at the facts.

“Whenever we talk about poverty in America, Americans want to talk about these great myths because that’s the great American dream we all carry around. We want to believe that individuals can overcome these negative environmental impacts through ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ or a ‘Teach for America’ teacher walking into your life in sixth grade. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it’s very rare. Americans need to stop paying attention to these shining examples — they’re not typical.”

Evans admits, though, it is not an inexpensive process; the costs are outweighed by the benefits. “It’s hugely expensive to have so many people who can’t compete in the modern economy. In America today, one out of five kids are growing up in poverty.”

He believes this logic is closely related to universal healthcare. As a MacArthur Research Network member, he looks at the connection between socioeconomic status and healthcare.

He explained, “It’s difficult for most people to understand, if you have good healthcare, what the benefit to you for others having it too is. Look at how much we spend per capita and what we get for it, it’s very poor efficiency. When you don’t have standard healthcare, your healthcare becomes the emergency room — which is much more expensive.”

Original Author: Tajwar Mazhar