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Under the skin: How social and environmental factors affect health

Alan Flurry

Man Kit “Karlo” Lei came from humble beginnings in Macau, China. His mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and died five years later when Lei was a teenager. It was a difficult time, but fortunately, he had good support through school and from friends. He thrived despite the challenges, earning degrees in law and sociology at National Taiwan University and then the University of Georgia.

Lei’s studies led him to a question: Why do some children, but not others, thrive despite facing adversity?

“I grew up in a relatively low-income family, and my mother died of ALS. Many social scientists would say these are negative events that might affect my ability to be successful, but so far, so good,” said Lei, now assistant professor of sociology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “So that’s my question: Why?”

This question drives his research, which focuses on how and why early experiences—ranging from family and community to broader socio-cultural settings—impact well-being, including physical health, mental health and behavior, across the life span. And Lei is not the only one exploring how early experiences get “under the skin.” UGA researchers from sociology to psychology to human development and family science are using a variety of methods to shed light on what’s sometimes called biological embedding, the process of how life experiences can affect biological systems and influence health throughout life.

“UGA is a powerhouse of research on social and environmental factors related to health,” said Steven Beach, Regents’ Professor and Distinguished Research Professor of psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “And I feel really lucky to be here and to be part of that group.”

Read MORE of this extended feature from our colleagues in the UGA Office of Research.

Image: Developmental psychologist Katherine Ehrlich. (Photo by Jason Thrasher)

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