Skip to main content
Faculty/Staff Resources
Human Development and Family Studies
Search search
Mobile Search:
Shenk Lab
Chad Shenk, Ph.D.

Pediatric trauma affects long-term health and development. However, important scientific questions about the impact of pediatric trauma remain and require answers if we are to allocate resources commensurate with the risks and health consequences children face. For instance, what are the contributors to replication failures and variation in effect size magnitudes across studies of child maltreatment examining the same health outcome?  What are the causal pathways that explain how trauma and adversity lead to diverse outcomes across the health spectrum?  How can we improve the effectiveness and efficiency of interventions, both prevention and treatment, for children affected by trauma?  These questions spur three interrelated aims in the Shenk Lab: 1) advance methods that facilitate the accurate estimation of the impact of pediatric trauma across adverse health outcomes, 2) identify mechanisms leading to multiple adverse health outcomes in the pediatric trauma population, and 3) optimize the prevention and treatment of psychiatric disorders by targeting and engaging identified mechanisms. 

Current Grants and Projects


Controlling Contamination Bias in Prospective Cohort Studies on Child Maltreatment icon-olus-circle

Contamination occurs in many different research designs outside the field of pediatric trauma. In this project, contamination refers to the presence of child maltreatment in an already established, non-child maltreatment comparison condition. Research has shown that failure to detect and control contamination biases effect size estimates for a range of pediatric health outcomes and leads to variation in the significance and magnitude of those estimates within and across studies, increasing the chances of discovery and replication failures.

The Controlling Contamination Bias Project is supported by NIH (R03HD104739; Shenk, PI) and NSF (BCS-2041333; Shenk, PI; Shores and Ram, Co-I’s) awards examining contamination in prospective cohort studies of child maltreatment. This project is using existing data from two multi-site, multi-wave prospective cohort studies of confirmed child maltreatment, the Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect (LONGSCAN; N=1354) and the National Survey on Child and Adolescent Well-being II (NSCAW-II; N=5873) to: 1) estimate the prevalence of contamination, 2) test different methodological approaches to detecting and controlling contamination, and 3) evaluate statistical approaches that demonstrate the extent of contamination bias as well as generate causal estimates of the effect of child maltreatment on child behavior problems. Finally, this project will conduct extensive data simulations based on these results to extend inferences across different research conditions, including variations in sample size, contamination prevalence, statistical power, and effect size magnitude. The end-product of this project will be to disseminate to the larger scientific field the optimal methods for detecting and controlling contamination bias across a range of research conditions to minimize variation in the significance and magnitude of effect size estimates reported across prospective cohort studies.

  • Postdoctoral fellow and graduate student positions are open for this project. 
Caregiver-Child Communication (C3) to Promote Resilience Following Child Maltreatment icon-olus-circle

The C3 Project is supported by an NIH P50 Center Grant (P50HD089922; Noll, PI) that is conducting a prospective cohort study, the Child Health Study (CHS; Shenk, Co-I), examining the impact of child maltreatment on multiple biological systems and subsequent pediatric health. One of the Shenk Lab’s unique contributions to the CHS is the use of observational methods to quantify caregiver-child dyadic communication and establish how specific patterns of communication are involved in promoting resilience to adverse health following exposure to child maltreatment.

Caregivers and their children participating in the CHS (N=600 and counting!) complete three separate interaction tasks designed to promote relationship quality and dyadic problem-solving. Caregiver-child communication is then sampled using a multilevel, intensive longitudinal design, where specific processes are quantified in 30-second epochs to estimate dynamic change within and across tasks. Furthermore, families in the CHS complete waves of data collection every two years with the same three interaction tasks administered at each wave, allowing for inferences about how specific caregiver-child communication patterns change from childhood to adulthood and in response to child maltreatment. Following a deep phenotyping and multiple levels of analysis approach, data obtained from these observational methods will ultimately be included with biological, behavioral, and other environmental mechanisms of adverse health being measured in the CHS, such as structural MRI, genome-wide DNA methylation, cognitive development, psychiatric function, and more. The data generated from the C3 project will inform models of how the experience of pediatric trauma “gets under the skin” and whether parent-child communication can facilitate reductions in risk for adverse health.

  • Graduate and undergraduate student positions are open for this project. 
The Epigenetic and Cognitive Aging Project (eCAP) icon-olus-circle

eCAP is supported by NIH award (R01AG059682; Shenk, PI; O’Donnell, Sliwinski, Ram, and Noll, Co-I’s) examining the impact of child maltreatment on epigenetic age acceleration, a cross-tissue index of the biological aging of cells that is derived from DNA methylation across the genome and has added explanatory power of adulthood health beyond chronological age.

This project will first examine epigenetic age acceleration and its relation to mid-life cognitive function in the Female Growth and Development Study (FGDS), a 30-year prospective cohort study of the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. The FGDS cohort also provides an unprecedented opportunity to test the mediational properties of glucocorticoid remodeling occurring over the 20 years following exposure to substantiated child sexual abuse on epigenetic age acceleration. Once statistical models of epigenetic age acceleration and cognitive outcomes are developed using data from the FGDS discovery cohort, they will be exported for replication in independent, international cohorts to extend models to more diverse samples. Results will inform precision-based efforts at preventing, delaying, or reversing the onset of various cognitive aging outcomes across different points of the lifespan following childhood sexual abuse.

  • Postdoctoral fellows and graduate students can use eCAP data in secondary data analyses.  
The Life Events and Reactions Study (LEARS) icon-olus-circle

LEARS is a genetic case-control association study examining the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms associated with the onset of psychiatric disorders in the child maltreatment population. Supported by NIH funds (KL2TR000078; Shenk, PI), children between the ages of 8 and 15 years of age who experienced substantiated child maltreatment participated in this study.

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are able to analyze biospecimens (oral fluid, buccal swab) from this study and relate variation in a number of markers to the course and severity of psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses obtained from a structured psychiatric interview. Students are also actively involved in the entry, coding, and cleaning of data to facilitate statistical analysis. Results from this study will provide insight into the genetic, epigenetic, and psychological contributions for these disorders in the child maltreatment population so that interventions targeting these processes can be developed or applied more effectively.

  • Postdoctoral fellows and graduate students can use LEARS data in secondary data analyses. 
The Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy + Animal-Assisted Therapy (TF-CBT+AAT) Trial icon-olus-circle

The TF-CBT+AAT project is an NIH-funded (R21HD091887; Allen, PI; Shenk, Co-I) randomized controlled feasibility trial examining the tolerability and acceptability of delivering TF-CBT while a service dog is present during active treatment. TF-CBT is one of the few well-established interventions for pediatric trauma and resulting posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This trial is examining whether introducing a service dog during standard administration of TF-CBT enhances treatment effects for PTSD above and beyond TF-CBT alone.

The Shenk Lab’s contribution to this project is overseeing the collection, editing, and analysis of electrocardiogram data obtained at pre-treatment as well as at sessions during the active treatment phase. Current work on this project involves generating estimates of the respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an index of parasympathetic control of cardiac activity, in 30-second epochs and modeling within and between session change in RSA as a potential mechanism of action for TF-CBT when treating child maltreatment-related PTSD. This project is also examining whether RSA withdrawal in response to the Trier Social Stress Test administered pre-treatment predicts RSA change during active treatment and PTSD symptom severity at post-treatment.

How to Get Involved

Contact Chad Shenk for more information on how to become part of the team. And get to know the current members of the Shenk Lab and their research interests.

Additional research and training opportunities

Representative publications 

(* = student or postdoctoral fellow authorship)

View Publications icon-olus-circle
  • Olson, A.E.*, Chow, S., Jones, D.E., & Shenk, C.E. (in press). Child maltreatment, parent-child relationship quality, and parental monitoring in relation to adolescent behavior problems: Disaggregating between and within person effects. Child Abuse & Neglect.
  • Rubens, M., Bruenig, D., Adams, J. A. M., Suresh, S. M., Sathyanarayanan, A., Haslam, D., Shenk, C. E., Mathews, B., & Mehta, D. (2023). Childhood Maltreatment and DNA Methylation: A Systematic Review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 147, 105079. 
  • Zhang, Z.Z.*, Moeckel, C.*, Mustafa, M.*, Pham, H., Olson, A.E.*, Mehta, D., Dorn, L.D., Engeland, C.G., & Shenk, C.E. (2023). The association of epigenetic age acceleration and depressive and anxiety symptom severity among children recently exposed to substantiated maltreatment. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 165, 7-13. 
  • Shenk, C.E., Allen, B., Dreschel, N.A., Wang, M., Felt, J.M.*, Brown, M.P., Bucher, A.M., Chen, M.J., & Olson, A.E.* (2022). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia change during Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Results from a randomized controlled feasibility trial. Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 50, 1487-1499. 
  • Shenk, C.E., Felt, J.M.*, Ram, N., O’Donnell, K.J., Sliwinski, M.J., Pokhvisneva, I., Benson, L., Meaney, M.J., Putnam, F.W., Noll, J.G. (2022). Cortisol trajectories measured prospectively across thirty years of female development following exposure to childhood sexual abuse: Moderation by epigenetic age acceleration at midlife. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 136.  
  • Shenk, C.E., Rausch, J.R., Shores, K.A., Allen, E.K.,* & Olson, A.E.* (2022). Controlling contamination in child maltreatment research: Impact on effect size estimates for child behavior problems measured throughout childhood and adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 34, 1287-1299.  
  • Shenk, C.E., O’Donnell, K.J., Pokhvisneva, I., Kobor, M.S., Meaney, M.J., Bensman, H.E., Allen, E.K.*, & Olson, A.E.* (2022). Epigenetic age acceleration and risk for posttraumatic stress disorder following exposure to substantiated child maltreatment. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 51, 651-661.  
  • Shenk, C.E., Keeshin, B., Bensman, H.E., Olson, A.E.*, & Allen, B. (2021). Behavioral and pharmacological interventions for the prevention and treatment of psychiatric disorders with children exposed to maltreatment. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 211.  
  • Noll, J.G., Haag, A.C., Shenk, C.E., Wright, M.F., Barnes, J.E., Koram, M., Malgaroli, M., Foley, D.J., Kouril, M., & Bonanno, G.A. (2021). An observational study of Internet behaviors for adolescent females following sexual abuse. Nature Human Behavior, 6, 74-87.  
  • Allen, E.K.*, Desir, M.*, & Shenk, C.E. (2021). Child maltreatment and adolescent externalizing behavior: Examining the indirect and cross-lagged pathways of prosocial peer activities. Child Abuse & Neglect, 111, 104796.  
  • Allen, B., Shenk, C.E., Dreschel, N.E., Wang, M., Bucher, A.M., Desir, M.P., Chen, M.J., & Grabowski, S.R. (2021). Integrating animal-assisted therapy into TF-CBT for abused youth with PTSD: A randomized controlled feasibility trial. Child Maltreatment, 27, 466-477.  
  • Olson, A.E.*, Shenk, C.E., Noll, J.G., & Allen, B. (2021). Child maltreatment and substance use in emerging adulthood: Internalizing and externalizing behaviors at the transition to adolescence as indirect pathways. Child Maltreatment, 27, 490-500.