Highlighting Faculty Member Jennifer Sumner
Date published: 6/14/2021
Dr. Sumner’s research examines how the experiences of trauma and severe stress contribute to accelerated aging and risk for chronic disease.
The vast majority of individuals will be exposed to at least one traumatic event during their lifetime, and growing evidence suggests that these experiences can have lasting impacts on both mental and physical health. The Sumner Stress Lab aims to elucidate the psychological and biological mechanisms linking trauma and severe stress with disease risk, with a particular focus on cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death and disability worldwide. The lab’s work examines mechanisms across multiple levels of analysis, from genes to biomarkers to physiology to behavior. The goal of this research is to delineate the pathways by which trauma and stress get embedded “under the skin” to contribute to poor health. The Sumner Stress Lab strives to use this knowledge to develop targeted interventions to offset risk for adverse health outcomes after trauma.
To date, Dr. Sumner and her colleagues have demonstrated that trauma exposure and PTSD—the quintessential trauma-related mental disorder—precede and predict the first onset of a wide range of cardiovascular conditions in samples of civilian women and women veterans. The Sumner Stress Lab often adopts a women’s health focus when examining the physical health impact of trauma. PTSD is twice as common in women as in men, and the prevalence and manifestation of numerous physical health conditions vary for men and women. Despite these notable sex differences, the PTSD-physical health link has traditionally been understudied in women. Some of the lab’s recent work aims to identify what aspects of PTSD are most related to early manifestations of cardiovascular risk. In addition, Dr. Sumner’s lab has been investigating how trauma and trauma-related psychopathology are associated with markers of accelerated aging that may manifest long before clinical diseases emerge.
Dr. Sumner grew up in New York and headed west to Pomona College for her undergraduate education. After graduating with a BA in Psychology, she pursued her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Northwestern University. Dr. Sumner completed her predoctoral internship at the Charleston Consortium (Traumatic Stress track) and then returned to her New York roots for her postdoctoral work at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Upon completing her postdoctoral fellowship, she remained at Columbia to join the faculty at the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health. In 2019, Dr. Sumner came west once again to join the UCLA Psychology faculty.