Cam Hostinar: Helping Children Cope With Stress

Cam Hostinar is one of the newer members of the faculty, but her research on early-life stress is already making an impact.

An expert on childhood stress, Hostinar wants to do more than just study its long-term effects. She hopes to immediately help children and teens minimize the damage it inflicts on their developing bodies and brains.

Stress at any time of life is linked with a variety of mental and physical illnesses, but stress at a young age might cause even more problems because the brain is still undergoing development. “There’s a common misconception that children are not as stressed as adults,” she says, “but in actuality, when you think about it, their coping strategies are more immature than those of adults.”

Hostinar believes teaching young people strategies for coping and managing stress in a healthy way is vital to reducing its impacts, since it is harder for these strategies to take hold in mature brains. She and her team are currently working with two local school districts to develop and implement training for school-age children, hoping to study how it reduces stress in the long-term.

“The goal is to do a fast transmission of our knowledge to practice—inform practice to improve the lives of children and families who are poor,” she said.

Love of scientific inquiry

Hostinar came to the United States from her native Romania for college on a debate scholarship. After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Towson University, she then got her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota and did postdoctoral work at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University before accepting an assistant professor position at UC Davis in 2016.

“I’ve always been kind of a nerd and in love with school since pretty much the age of 7,” she admits. “I’ve never really left the academic world. I’ve been in it forever, so this is what I do and what I love to do.”

Her research bridges the psychology department and the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, and she is also affiliated with the Center for Mind and Brain. The poverty center is one of three federally designated poverty research centers in the country. Its goal is to better understand the effects of poverty. For Hostinar, the center is a huge selling point of Davis and she is proud of the work she does there.

She is currently working on a project that studies how parental job loss affects child and adolescent development, using data from a study of 15,000 children and families from the U.K. from the children’s birth to age 25.

“I am in love with research, and have been for a decade now,” she said. “I love the thrill of trying to address a gap in our knowledge and trying to figure out how to use whatever experimental paradigms we have to answer those questions.”

Engaging students in the lab and classrooms

She runs the Social Environment and Stress (SES) Lab at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, where she works with graduate and undergraduate students to try to answer these questions. She hopes to look at how social relationships affect immune responses to illness and stress and to better understand the importance of coping and self-regulation skills in preventing childhood stress.

“She’s given me a lot of awesome opportunities,” said graduate student Lillybelle Deer, who has worked with Hostinar since she started at Davis. “She’s so passionate about what she does. It makes me more motivated, and it’s fun to be part of this lab that’s really just getting off the ground.”

Hostinar also teaches two undergraduate courses — “Health Psychology” (PSC 126) and “Social and Personality Development” (PSC 142) — and a graduate seminar on stress psychobiology. She has enjoyed the teaching experience and likes connecting with whole classrooms of students by trying to encourage discussion and interaction instead of straight lecture.

When she isn’t researching or teaching, she spends time with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. “That’s my stress relief that I get from my social relationships,” she said. “We’re very happy to be in Davis.” They enjoy going to the Wednesday Davis Farmer’s Market and the Sacramento Zoo together and appreciate how warm and family-friendly Davis is.

“This is my dream job,” she said. “It was when I applied for it and it still is, so I’m very grateful and thankful to be in this department. I really enjoy everything about it and I feel very privileged every single day just to be here.”

— Noah Pflueger-Peters, spring 2017 writing intern