University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Samir Kassem



Undergraduate Research Award


Samir Kassem is a Linguistics and Psychology B.A. candidate and a member of the Commonwealth Honors College. He is a research assistant in the Family Relationships, Affective Science, and Minority Health (FAM) Lab, and leads data collection for a study analyzing the impacts of racial discrimination on the health of Latinx families. Under the mentorship of the FAM Lab’s director, Dr. Evelyn Mercado, his honors thesis research examines how different levels of racism (interpersonal overt/covert, institutional) affect the stress physiology of Latinx adolescents, specifically the activity of the steroid hormone cortisol. His other research interests center on how different environmental factors can impact language development, acquisition, and use among Latinx children and adolescents, and he hopes to study bilingual cognition and Latinx identity after graduation.


Racial and ethnic discrimination is a stressful experience that is prevalent in the lives of Latinx adolescents and can contribute to negative mental health outcomes. Latinx youth who report experiencing more racism also show poorer socio-emotional health, exhibit more depressive symptoms, and are more likely to abuse substances. To develop effective intervention methods that can ameliorate these effects, it is important to examine what levels of racism Latinx youth are most experiencing, and outline the mediating factors that play a role between racism and its mental health outcomes. 

My research aims to address both of these questions by analyzing the prevalence of different levels of racism (interpersonal overt, interpersonal covert, and institutional), and their impact on cortisol levels among Latinx adolescents in Western Massachusetts. Cortisol is an important hormone for the body’s stress response system and everyday functioning. However, chronic stressors, like racial discrimination, can lead to altered cortisol levels, which can in turn contribute to poorer mental health. Although links between racial discrimination and altered cortisol activity have been observed in Latinx adults, few studies have explored these ties in Latinx adolescents. Furthermore, most of this research has examined how interpersonal overt racism (obvious prejudice/discrimination) impacts cortisol, yet adolescents also experience interpersonal covert (e.g. microaggressions) and institutional racism. 

This project will expand our understanding of how racial discrimination impacts stress physiology across development. The focus on the various types of racism will provide insight as to which type is most prevalent in Latinx adolescents’ lives, and which type is most physiologically impactful. The results could orient the work of policy makers, educators, and mental health professionals looking to develop intervention and prevention strategies that diminish racial discrimination and its outcomes. I hope my research will raise awareness on how racism can get under the skin and have long lasting impacts on those who experience it.


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