Natasha Chaku and the drama of adolescent development

Assistant Professor Natasha Chaku Photo by Jordan Morning

Between the two “acts” of childhood and adulthood and among a potent mix of interacting changes – biological, cognitive, social, cultural, environmental – is the momentous drama of adolescence. As director of the interACT Lab on adolescent development, newly arrived PBS assistant professor Natasha Chaku focuses on this drama, expanding the scope of PBS developmental research in the process.

“A lot of research focuses on the first five years. But biological processes at the onset of puberty set the stage for a host of cognitive and behavioral changes that unfold across the lifespan,” she explains, “They can have long-term effects on mental and physical health into middle and old age.”

To understand biological and cognitive changes in adolescence and their relation to health and well-being, Chaku studies the way teenagers navigate their daily lives, using a variety of empirical methods, from daily diaries, physiological data and neurocognitive testing. She looks at the way changes in puberty affect executive function and the ability to set and implement a goal or delay an immediate response; she looks at the way this cognitive ability is affected by changes in sleep patterns, responses to stress, circulating hormone levels.

Yet, while “puberty is this normative event,” she says, “there are huge differences in the way individuals experience it.” For example, “the age at which you begin puberty has big implications for health and cognition” and “much depends on how the changes are perceived in the larger culture.”

This variation within adolescent experience perhaps accounts for the dual perspective we often encounter, she suggests. “Teenagers are commonly depicted as troubled, moody, and mean. But adolescence is also a time when you make close friends and discover passions that stay with you for the rest of your life.” Likewise, that adolescents take more risks is often perceived as dangerous to themselves and others, but as Chaku points out, “the same inclination can be viewed as positive, when it leads to raising your hand in class, asking someone on a date, or becoming more independent.”


. . . the age at which you begin puberty has big implications for health and cognition and much depends on how the changes are perceived in the larger culture.

– Assistant Professor Natasha Chaku

Chaku’s work contributes to a growing area of research on adolescent civic engagement. She and her collaborators conducted several studies of stress among young adults before and after the 2016 election, measuring cortisol in saliva samples collected from a diverse group of college students. “We think civic engagement is a positive thing, even a fundamental goal of adolescence. Civic engagement empowers people to feel part of something larger than themselves.” Yet, this too, can have positive or negative effects.

For instance, in a different study, she and her collaborators found that those with adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, were often more negatively affected by the stress during the 2016 election, a sign that they need more support when they participate in voting, politics, and other forms of civic engagement. The study also showed more stress following the 2016 election among young women compared to men, and in youth with marginalized race/ethnic identities compared to white youth.

Changes or events in adolescence can take many possible turns, depending on individual circumstances and experiences. Her work seeks to uncover why by examining both what is happening on a day-to-day level and the antecedents that might have led to a negative versus a positive trajectory.

Science Writer