Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


“There are many physical, emotional and social changes, so the environment can have a bigger influence than at other times,”

- Lindsay Till Hoyt

Lindsay Till Hoyt Puts the Accent on Healthy Youth Development

By Marilyn Sherman
Lindsay Till Hoyt

While adolescence is often seen as a time of turmoil and trouble, Lindsay Till Hoyt (PhD13) takes the opposite view. In her forward-thinking research into improving health, she envisions adolescence as a window of opportunity — a chance to forge positive patterns for longterm health. “There are many physical, emotional and social changes, so the environment can have a bigger influence than at other times,” she says.

Currently Hoyt is infusing her focus on positive adolescent development into her research as a Health and Society Scholar for the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. Now based jointly at the University of California San Francisco and University of California Berkeley, she was selected as one of the nation’s outstanding scholars to study the interconnected biological, economic, behavioral and social determinants of health.

“I appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of the program,” says Hoyt, a graduate of the similarly multidisciplinary Human Development and Social Policy (HDSP) program. “Coming from SESP and HDSP, I feel well equipped to think about health that way.”

Her collaborative research is with doctors, epidemiologists, psychologists and other professionals. “We know that health relates to more than just biology but also to how the environment interacts with biology. Each fellow brings different expertise to the table for an innovative approach that can challenge the way to do research to make it better,” she notes.

From the beginning, Hoyt was “blown away” by the research model she encountered as a fellow. For example, in the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Project she’s involved in, lab scientists, epidemiologists, social scientists, communication specialists, outreach groups and patients all contribute to the work of understanding how to make changes during puberty to prevent breast cancer. “I’m interested in how it all comes together and how to make a difference,” Hoyt says.

In fact, most of her current Robert Woods Johnson investigations focus on puberty and prevention. In one study, she’s researching the health impact of girls’ neighborhoods during puberty, with an eye to factors such as safety, walkability and food options. In another, she’s assessing changes in sleep, especially how the timing of puberty affects sleep and psychological adaptability.

Hoyt has sound reasons for putting the accent on adolescence throughout her health research. “Adolescent health provides the foundation for adult health, and many lifelong patterns of behaviors are established during the teen years” — from smart sleep patterns to strong social skills, she says. For that reason, adolescence represents “an incredible period of opportunity to study early influences on health and intervene before the onset of chronic disease in adulthood.”

From the start, positive youth development drew her interest because “it felt like an underdog in the larger field of health science,” says Hoyt. In the traditional medical model that defines health as the absence of disease, scientists often study the end of life or negative traits linked to stress and illness. In a new way, she aims to understand how positive traits and emotions in adolescence link to disease resistance and wellness.

Hoyt first gained notice for her positive spin on research about adolescence as a student at Northwestern. Her master’s thesis, which investigated the link between depression and health behaviors, received widespread notice for connecting positive well-being to physical indicators of health. Later, for her dissertation work she looked at the relationship between positive wellbeing and physical measures of health, including markers of inflammation and biological stress. A high level of well-being is protective of health, she concluded.

Hoyt says training at HDSP gave her skills that strengthen her health research. “Being fluent in interdisciplinary language has served me well. In HDSP I worked with faculty from psychology, sociology, statistics, anthropology and medicine. You can’t be an expert in every discipline, but I gained the confidence to converse across different perspectives,” she says.

After her fellowship, Hoyt would like to teach and research at an interdisciplinary institution. She imagines that a school of public health or a medical school might offer her the chance to provide a social science angle. “I like the idea that I can bring expertise on youth development to people who work in a different way, and I can learn from them too,” she says with a smile.