Aryeh Stein, a professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, has received a three-year, $3.7 million award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his research into the role childhood development has on a person’s socio-emotional functioning in adulthood.
“The question we are trying to answer is what is it in early life that predicts better functioning on a wide range of dimensions as adults,” Stein said. “For example, what types of activities in childhood predict getting married, staying married, having a good job, having a higher income, having wider networks of friends and being healthier physically? These are the sort of questions we try to answer.”
Stein’s team is focusing mostly on low- and middle-income communities around the world. The past few years his team has followed people born in one of five countries from childhood into adulthood.
The grant will enable Stein and his team to collect a new wave of data on three of the five groups — those in Guatemala, South Africa and the Philippines.
“Our working hypothesis is that the ways children develop are set pretty early in life,” said Stein, a member of Congregation Shearith Israel, “maybe even during pregnancy but certainly in the first two years of life. Being able to document that and show how much is predicted by things we know about in early life and may be able to modify provides guidance for policymakers, educators and people who care about early childhood development to plan better for the next generation.”
According to Stein, the factors likely to lead to success as adults if they are improved include early-life nutrition, sanitation and child care. Stein said that even though such factors have always been perceived as important, they haven’t been looked at from birth to adulthood in the same individuals until now.
Stein, who was born in England and moved to Israel when he was 12, came to Atlanta in 1998 to work at Emory. He said that because around 80 percent of Earth’s population lives in middle-to-low-income countries, what happens in those places is vital for the world.
The overall aims of the project are to describe patterns of cognitive functioning from early childhood to adulthood and to identify factors that predict those patterns, as well as assess the impact of those patterns of cognitive and socio-emotional function in adulthood.
The grant was awarded to Stein after a negotiated process in which he approached the Gates Foundation’s program officer with the idea for the project. Final approval came in early April.