Beth Russell says those who dedicate their careers to the social sciences and the study of human development often start with a desire to help people; Russell herself is no exception.
As an associate professor of human development and family sciences, Russell studies how people regulate or control their emotional distress and designs interventions that work toward reducing human suffering.
“The human experience is a pretty rich one,” Russell says. “We all take our histories with us, for better or for worse, into all the contexts of human life – into our education, our relationships and families, and into our work.”
As an undergraduate at Hampshire College, Russell studied pre-med track and comparative literature. An advisor encouraged her to work in a hospital before applying to medical school.
Russell interned in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a children’s hospital near her hometown. There, she explored the difference between studying the physiology of health and its developmental aspects, finding herself drawn to the latter.
Life in the NICU is extremely stressful for both the infant and parents. Russell became interested in how mothers and babies form a system of resilience to navigate intense emotions as they prepare for discharge and life outside the hospital.
“For babies in the NICU, a crucial context of their health and well-being is, in fact, their relationship with their mother,” Russell says. “I fell in love with the study of mutual regulation of distress.”
One of Russell’s recent studies looked at how caregivers of children with chronic pain regulate their own distress. This is important since, if caregivers are not taking care of themselves, they cannot support their children optimally.
Additionally, children learn how to cope with their own emotions in part from their parents.
This study is currently expanding to parents whose children have substance use disorders. This expansion represents an intersection of Russell’s early work on parent-child relationships and her more recent studies looking at the emotion regulation underpinnings of substance abuse and addiction.
Russell was trained to apply rigorous scientific methods to the study of human development and family science during her doctoral career, in a field that values interdisciplinarity and accounts for the intersection of individual experience and context.
The applied research skills she gained make up the foundation of her scholarship today. Russell completes about half her work with the Center for Applied Research in Human Development, and now serves as its director.
The Center, established nearly 20 years ago, focuses on connecting researchers to community organizations. A jointly designed research vision developed through collaboration between scientists and the organizations that can benefit directly from the work can have a tangible impact on the lived routines of families in Connecticut.
Distress is part of the human experience. It’s inevitable. — Beth Russell
The Center’s connection to community organizations also helps UConn fulfill an essential part of its mission as a land grant university. The work the Center supports helps strengthen the provision of human services in Connecticut and beyond by disseminating applied research findings to national and international venues, Russell explains.
For example, in one of the Center’s longest-standing projects, Russell works closely with community partners at EASTCONN as providers of Early Head Start and Head Start, to evaluate the impacts of programming focused on enriching the educational experiences of children from low-income households.
In addition to supporting some of Connecticut’s most vulnerable families, the Center also helps mentor aspiring researchers, which Russell says is truly rewarding. In training the next generation of scientists through the Center, Russell shows young scholars how their work can directly benefit people beyond laboratory settings.
“Most students come into studying human development because they want to help, they felt a call to make a change,” Russell says. “As a mentor, I love working with that abstract idea of being helpful and building on it through applied research experiences directly with the people they want to help. That’s how the work becomes real and it becomes meaningful.”
Filling in Each Other’s Colors
Much of Russell’s work involves interdisciplinary collaboration with her colleagues at UConn and around the country.
She is currently working on a project with professor of psychological sciences, Crystal Park, and Michael Fendrich, associate dean of research at the School of Social Work through the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP). The team studies the emotional regulation underpinnings of health behaviors and addiction in a study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
This productive team is tackling the national epidemic of substance abuse from multiple lenses.
The trio has the benefit of containing both clinicians and researchers that use qualitative and quantitative measures. These complementary relationships allow this research team to develop lines of inquiry and strategies they would not have necessarily developed on their own.
“To quote fellow UConn researcher Seth Kalichman, we fill in each other’s missing colors,” Russell says.
While the team is currently focused on alcohol abuse in young adults in a project called PACER, their research can easily expand into other substance use in the general population.
The PACER team was preparing to roll out a program testing regulatory strategies in the UConn community when the COVID-19 pandemic moved the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester online.
The researchers took advantage of the unique opportunity to see how people cope with a large-scale, distressing event, including examinations of their attempts to cope through substance use.
The team launched its first national survey in early April. The initial survey captured data from the population at what turned out to be the pandemic’s initial peak in the United States, and the team plans to continue to explore Americans’ response in future surveys.
Rephrasing the Question
Early in her career, Russell learned as many as a third of people surveyed did not believe they have control over, or can manage, their emotions. Many are unaware there are strategies they can employ and practice for when times get hard.
This experience led Russell to invest careful attention in the process researchers use to study public attitudes and behavioral approaches to coping, using psychometrically sound experimental designs and reliable tools that minimize assumptions people are aware of their emotions and can articulate how they regulate them.
Part of the problem may be a lack of acceptance and opportunities to have open conversations about negative emotions and experiences.
“We don’t have a great cultural practice in the U.S. to talk about negative emotions,” Russell says. “We stigmatize negative experiences so much so that people don’t want to look at them, talk about them, work to understand them.”
One of the most salient aspects of Russell’s research is that it involves something everyone experiences, across all walks of life.
“Distress is part of the human experience. It’s inevitable,” Russell says. “It’s not hard to see examples of extreme challenge and distress when we look around our everyday lives. Even people wrapped in layers of privilege that protect them from complicated or institutionalized struggles will still have dark days.”
Russell emphasizes people do have agency in how they respond to distressing situations and her work supports the development of healthy coping mechanisms.
“All people have agency to deal with those dark times,” Russell says. “But some, especially those who face cumulative disadvantage, may benefit from additional programs and supports to maximize their ability to cope in healthy ways.”