University of Minnesota Prof. Ann Masten has won a prestigious psychology award for her work showing that "ordinary magic" contributes to resilience in children.
Masten's research found that a child's ability to overcome trauma can be affected by a number of common factors: supportive relationships, a feeling of belonging, self-control, problem-solving skills, optimism and a sense of purpose.
"We have evolved both biologically and over many centuries of cultural change to have a lot of capacity to respond well to challenges," she said in an interview Wednesday, when she was named one of this year's winners of the Grawemeyer Awards based at the University of Louisville.
The awards were created in 1984 with a donation from H. Charles Grawemeyer, a Louisville, Ky., entrepreneur who wanted to recognize ideas that have helped improve the world. Each year, the university hands out prizes in the fields of music, political science, psychology, education and religion.
Masten said she was "thrilled, as you can imagine" to receive the Grawemeyer Award, which comes with a $100,000 prize. She said she was still awaiting information about whether there are restrictions on how she can use the money, and that she would love to establish a fellowship for students who are studying resilience.
Her work challenged the conventional wisdom that suggested a child's ability to overcome trauma could be attributed to some innate quality they possessed, instead showing "you can have experiences and interactions and things in your environment that make it more likely that you will be successful, despite challenges," said Nicholaus Noles, a professor who oversees the psychology awards.
Noles said Masten's work has helped shape a wide array of public policies aimed at finding ways to intervene after trauma occurs. It's been referenced in pediatrics, school counseling, social work and disaster-response plans.
Masten came to the University of Minnesota in 1976 to study clinical psychology and to work with Norman Garmezy, whom she described as "one of the pioneers in the study of resilience." She has studied the experiences of children in urban schools, families experiencing homelessness and people who escaped the genocidal campaign led by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
"The science of resilience has added important knowledge and evidence to what we understand about human development and what we can do to help people who are facing adversity," Masten said.
"But at the same time, I think the research has corroborated a lot of ideas that were already captured in our religions, cultural practices and the stories human beings have told each other for many generations about human capabilities to overcome adversity."
Masten's work has helped shaped the responses to natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and she hopes it will be useful as people attempt to tackle larger issues such as climate change.
She said Wednesday that she's in the process of gradually retiring. "I'd like to see investment in future researchers to understand resilience," she said.