University of Minnesota
Photo Credit:
Dawn Villella

A child's best friend

New Regents Professor Ann Masten works tirelessly to help children adapt to adverse circumstances.

June 27, 2014

Among the insights Ann Masten has gained in nearly 30 years of studying children facing adversity is that the ability to pull through isn’t the province of a special few. Rather, it’s what she calls “ordinary magic”: the blossoming of common human adaptive systems—aided, often, by relationships and resources—into the phenomenon of resilience.

A shining star in the University’s highly ranked Institute of Child Development (ICD), she has devoted her life to discovering ways to help such children grow into stable, productive adults and has led scholarship in the field.

In June Masten was named a Regents Professor, the highest honor bestowed on any University faculty member.

”As an alum of the U who has spent my entire academic career here and also raised a family in this wonderful city, this is an incredible honor,” she says.

A hands-on healer

After graduating from Smith College, Masten worked as a research assistant at the National Institute of Mental Health, then came to the University in 1976 for doctoral work in clinical psychology. With Norman Garmezy, a pioneer in research on resilience in children, as her adviser, she quickly gained traction and joined the ICD faculty in 1986. She has been a full professor since 1996, and served as director and department chair from 1999 to 2005.

Since the late 1980s, Masten has collaborated with community partners in research on children in the Twin Cities who have experienced homelessness, war, and other adversity. Her collaborators include faculty colleagues, students, and University staff, working alongside staff from local schools and community organizations.

“Ann deserves this,” says ICD Director and Regents Professor Megan Gunnar of Masten’s new honor. “She was doing engaged research in the community before the rest of us even knew that’s what we should be doing.”

Masten has identified factors that predict successful outcomes for at-risk children: parenting skills such as warmth and involvement, and executive function, which refers to a child’s ability to override her or his harmful emotions. And she is constantly expanding her horizons.

““I’m interested in helping build the capacity for resilience—from the molecular and individual levels up to whole societies and the world—to disasters in all forms, whether due to natural, economic, technological, or conflict-based forces,” Masten says.

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