Penn State's Shenk receives Mark Chaffin Early Career Research Award

Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association (APA) awarded its Mark Chaffin Early Career Research Award to Chad Shenk, an assistant professor in human development and family studies and a faculty member in Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, part of the Social Science Research Institute.

The award comes from Division 37 of the APA — the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice — which seeks to advance the protection of children through research, education and an integration and understanding of psychological knowledge.

This grant award is presented annually to an early-career psychologist in order to help fund a new research project or aid in the continuation of an ongoing study. According to award criteria, eligible projects must "integrate policy, practice and science to better serve children, adolescents and families."

Shenk's proposed project looks to test the link between child maltreatment and causal mechanisms — known as transdiagnostic mechanisms — of psychiatric disorders across an array of scientific disciplines, including neurobiological, behavioral and affective sciences. The goal of this work is to identify the ways in which maltreatment and abuse influence factors linked to psychiatric disorders, with the overall hope of using scientific intervention to prevent these disorders from ever occurring.

"Identifying transdiagnostic mechanisms presents a unique translational opportunity," Shenk said of the ways in which his findings, if significant, can be used to aid in real-world instances of distress after maltreatment.

Thus far, Shenk's research has found that maltreatment has a significant impact on the factors that cause post-traumatic stress and depressive disorders, and that interventions can stop some of the severe psychological consequences related to maltreatment. These results are the first evidence of their kind that show that by targeting the causal mechanisms of disorders after an instance of abuse, the possibility of prevention is enhanced and the likelihood of disorder development is diminished.

With help from this APA grant, Shenk is able to continue this research and further test the feasibility of his results. The grant will help fund a new study that tests the neurological and behavioral mechanisms of 32 maltreated children, ages 8-17, who have been referred to Shenk by Child Protective Services. Shenk will have participants use iPad applications, such as sorting and sequential exercises, to test and track changes in their memory, control and attention over the course of time in order to better understand how maltreatment impacts these core functions.

Shenk's yearlong study is set to begin this fall.