Ellen Morgan

Ellen is smiling at the camera with the beach the beach in the background

Ellen Morgan is a DPhil student in the Department of Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation. She holds an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor of Arts in Geography from the University of British Columbia. Her professional career has spanned the philanthropic, humanitarian and policy sectors. Prior to her doctoral studies, Ellen worked as an advisor to Templeton World Charity Foundation and as program officer for Grand Challenges Canada’s Global Mental Health innovation program. She has also worked with Médecins Sans Frontières in the Democratic Republic of Congo and as a policy analyst for the Government of Canada.

Ellen’s doctoral research seeks to contribute to the emerging body of work on the costs of resilience by investigating why some children who develop resilience in the context of early childhood socioeconomic adversity are at increased risk for poor long term health outcomes, as indicated by elevated levels of allostatic load.

Low socioeconomic status (SES) is strongly associated with premature mortality and morbidity. Poor people live shorter lives than their wealthier counterparts and are more likely to develop a range of diseases. Although differences in health outcomes are typically attributed to behavioural factors, such as smoking, poor diet, and high alcohol consumption, it is increasingly evident that biological mechanisms, such as allostatic load, inflammation, and epigenetic factors produce physiological changes which result in increased susceptibility to disease among low SES individuals (Vineis, 2020).

Research on resilience to adversity has focused on identifying factors that enable people to “do well” in challenging circumstances and individuals are often considered resilient if they possess psychosocial competencies that enable them to maintain wellbeing despite elevated levels of stress and adversity (Stewart and Yuen, 2011). Competencies such as self-regulation, autonomy, sense of purpose and the ability to connect with and form attachments with others have been identified as potential moderators or mediators of allostatic load, which contribute to resilience by preventing stress, buffering the stress response, or increasing the likelihood of adopting healthier and more prosocial behaviours (Masten & Cichetti, 2016). As a result, many resilience focused interventions seek to build these psychosocial competencies.

However, there is emerging evidence to suggest that resilience comes at a cost, and that developing resilience in some domains can engender negative impacts in others. Consequently, researchers have begun to explore the extent to which biological, psychosocial and environmental factors influence the physical toll of developing resilience among certain populations. Differential susceptibility theory, which stipulates that some individuals are more affected by environmental exposures and developmental experiences than others, provides a potential explanatory framework for why adaptation costs are higher for some individuals than others based on their level of sensitivity to negative (or positive) circumstances (Belsky & Pluess, 2009). For instance, it has been suggested that children who are highly susceptible to negative environmental influences but succeed at developing psychosocial resources such as self-regulation may do so at a greater physiological cost because of the increased effort required to persevere in a hostile environment (Brody, 2013).

Using longitudinal data from a birth cohort, this study will employ person centred as well as variable centred analysis techniques to identify a subpopulation profile of individuals with low socioeconomic status in early childhood, high psychological resilience and poor health outcomes in adulthood. Next, it will examine the extent to which differences in biological factors (plasticity genes), psychological competencies (self-regulation), and aspects of the family environment (attachment style, caregiver experiences of discrimination) contribute to the seemingly counterintuitive relationship between psychological resilience and physical health.

Many early childhood development programmes focus on promoting psychosocial competencies that have been shown to improve resilient outcomes. Findings from this study may be used to support researchers and practitioners to develop tailored resilience interventions which account for diverse biological, psychosocial and familial circumstances. This research will also contribute to the health disparities literature by exploring the extent to which adaptive processes contribute to physical dysregulation, thus enabling inequality to “get under the skin.”

Ellen is supervised by Dr. Jane Barlow.