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Feature

Megan Gunnar

Professor Megan Gunnar

A leader in the study of children and stress

Gunnar is among three new Regents Professors

By Gayla Marty

July 21, 2006

Professor Megan Gunnar's university laboratory is no traditional ivory tower. It's a chaotic playroom filled with kids followed by students with lollypop-shaped cotton swabs used to collect the children's saliva, which is then analyzed to measure agents that indicate stress levels.

Gunnar is a professor in the University's renowned Institute of Child Development and one of the world's leading authorities on understanding how social experiences in early life shape brain development and behavior. By documenting the neurobiology of stress, she has brought about a paradigm shift in the way researchers think about the effects of early life experiences and how vulnerable young children are to harsh conditions and neglect.

On July 12, the Board of Regents named Gunnar one of three new Regents Professors, the highest designation given to faculty at the U. Gunnar, political scientist Kathryn Sikkink, and chemist Donald Truhlar bring the esteemed group of scholars to 23. The new inductees will be honored by the board in September.

THREE NEW REGENTS PROFESSORS

Megan Gunnar, Institute of Child Development, College of Education and Human Development
Faculty profile

Kathryn Sikkink, Department of Political Science, College of Liberal Arts
Profile: "Tracking the human rights trail" (Sept. 6, 2006)

Donald Truhlar, Department of Chemistry, Institute of Technology
Profile: "A super computing chemist" (Sept. 12, 2006)

For more information about all three faculty members named July 12, see the news release, "University of Minnesota names three new Regents Professors."

"It's just an amazing honor," Gunnar said shortly after hearing the news. "I'm flying! And I am incredibly humbled because the quality of our faculty is outstanding--I am so proud to be at this university."

Gunnar talks fast and laughs easily, a powerhouse of ideas and enthusiasm about serious work. She describes a breathtaking level of activity in at least three different labs and centers on campus, from the Institute of Child Development to the Medical School. Her schedule has included a White House summit and collaboration with colleagues around the world. Over 25 years, hundreds of students and thousands of children have been part of the research she's led.

Until recently, there was no other lab like Gunnar's anywhere. When she started her work in the late 1970s, animal research had made a compelling case that stress early in life had an impact on brain development and behavior, but nothing had been documented in humans. The only way to measure biological indicators of stress was by collecting blood or urine samples, something difficult or impossible, especially with children. The technology to test saliva was just breaking, and Gunnar wanted to try it. When she interviewed at the University of Minnesota in 1979, she had four other job offers but realized this was the place for her.

"It was the best place to study child development in the world," she says.

The two broad arms of Gunnar's research are studying typical development--the kids in what is affectionately called the "spit lab"--and development marked by stress. It's this second area that led to the International Adoption Project, which involves children adopted from orphanages abroad, many neglected or maltreated before coming into stable homes. "Kids raised in orphanages give us something we can't duplicate any other way," says Gunnar. In the project, adoptive parents visit the lab for individual sessions with their children and complete questionnaires. Gunnar is beginning to show that the effects of early stress are at least partially reversible when a child's care improves. Elements of parenting or "therapeutic caregiving" that foster recovery are being identified and documented.

She's also excited about the next wave of research--the genetics of resilience, figuring out why some children who experience terrible stress early in their lives thrive and others don't.

"She's one of the gems in the crown of the University. Aside from doing very sophisticated and elegant research, she also gives that information away freely, never refusing to give a talk, and always in a very understandable way."

Gunnar's record of grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) places her in a narrow top margin of grantees in the past 25 years. Not only has her research been continuously funded over that time, but she has been awarded an unprecedented four consecutive NIH career or "K" awards. This year, she received the highest honor for lifetime contributions to developmental research given by the American Psychological Association, the prestigious G. Stanley Hall Award. Because of her groundbreaking research, the University of Minnesota is at the center of a scientific revolution in the study of human functioning and development, with powerful implications for human welfare.

"Professor Gunnar's work has been at the cutting edge of a revolution in understanding how our kids develop," says University President Robert Bruininks. "That's a prime example of how the University provides the advanced knowledge that can be used by parents and policymakers alike. She is also an engaged citizen of the University, helping us to restructure and reposition ourselves for even greater success in the future."

While Gunnar has been advancing to world leadership in the new integrative science of development, she also has provided outstanding teaching, mentoring, service, and outreach in Minnesota. She has spent more than 20 years on the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research and served on many other key faculty committees. She is the associate director and founding member of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development, a gifted teacher who has engaged and inspired students from diverse backgrounds to become scientists, and a legendary adviser to graduate students who have gone on to illustrious careers.

"Megan's one of the gems in the crown of the University," says professor Rich Weinberg, director of the Center for Early Childhood Development. "Aside from doing very sophisticated and elegant research, she also gives that information away freely, never refusing to give a talk, and always in a very understandable way."

Children have been part of Gunnar's home life, as well. With her husband, physics professor Dan Dahlberg, she has two sons, now 20 and 17. She remembers years when all the pencils in the Institute of Child Development were collected and sharpened by her young son while accompanying his mother to meetings. Gunnar credits the institute with an outstanding environment for balancing career and family. "Everybody here values parenting as much as they value work," she says.

Gunnar received her doctorate in developmental psychology from Stanford University. She joined the University of Minnesota in 1979, became a full professor in 1988 and a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in 1996.

The Regents Professorship was established in 1965 to recognize the national and international prominence of faculty members who have made unique contributions to the quality of the University of Minnesota through exceptional accomplishments in teaching, research and scholarship or creative work, and contributions to the public good.

The University plans to increase the number of Regents Professors to 30 by 2010. Currently, each receives a salary stipend of $20,000 per year and an additional $30,000 research stipend. For Gunnar, that stipend is a gift with enormous consequences.

"It's a huge stress reducer," she says. "The stipend gives some measure of protection against lean times--and we are in lean times. It means this work can go on."


For more information about Gunnar's work, see "How young children manage stress" (March 30, 2005).