Margaret Caughy’s father has a doctorate in organic chemistry.
Her mother’s doctorate is also in chemistry. One sibling has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, another is a cell biologist and still another is a medical doctor.
“I always say the chemistry genes jumped right over me,” Caughy said, laughing.
Raised in a “hyper educated” family in Bryan, Texas, Caughy spent her pre-teen years reading books on children with developmental disabilities and would tell anyone who asked that she wanted to be a child psychologist someday.
“I think I was just always interested in the mind,” she said.
Caughy continues to nurture this early passion as the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family Health Disparities in the FACS department of human development and family science.
Her research focuses on studying the contexts of risk and resilience affecting young children, with a particular interest in racial and ethnic disparities in health and development of ethnic minority families.
“A lot of these kids are the ones at greatest risk for school failure,” Caughy said.
Caughy’s professional introduction to the field came while serving as an assistant scientist under noted researcher Pat O’Campo at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in the department of maternal and child health.
The federally-funded research on infant mortality prevention was conducted in a high poverty, high crime area of Baltimore, and it was Caughy’s first up-close experience in that setting.
“One of the things you find out, parents raising their kids in these very high poverty neighborhoods, they want the same things everybody wants for their kids,” Caughy said. “It just takes a hell of a lot more effort. You would see examples of resilience that were mind-boggling.”
Caughy eventually left Baltimore for her native Texas, taking a job with the University of Texas School of Public Health at its Dallas campus in 1999.
The move set in motion a collaboration with another noted researcher, Margaret Tresch Owen, that led to the birth of the federally-funded Dallas Preschool Readiness Project, designed to study why some low-income minority children thrive in school while others struggle.
Launched in 2009, the study is following more than 400 African-American and Hispanic children from preschool to second grade, along with their parents, to see how school readiness develops within the context of the family.
“A lot of people focus on do kids know their ABCs and 123s,” Caughy said. “My thinking is the socio-emotional foundations are more important. That’s where this whole concept of self-regulation comes through: the ability to sit and pay attention and follow directions when they get to kindergarten.”
Results showed that children in the study were between 8-12 months behind in self-regulation development, but when parents were more engaged, the children grew to demonstrate better academic performance and fewer behavioral problems.
“It’s a theme you see with these families,” said Caughy, “that despite the context they’re in, the kids do well. It takes a lot of organization and monitoring and engagement.”
Caughy was recruited to the University of Georgia by HDFS department head Emilie Smith in 2016, moving here with her husband, Dennis, a licensed clinical social worker, and teen son Aidan. Daughter Michaela remains in Texas and is studying psychology, like her mother.
Already, Caughy has begun collaborating with HDFS faculty member Assaf Oshri on a project that will study low-income Athens families with children between the ages of 9 and 12 to study self-regulation and risky decision-making on the part of the children.
The project is modeled after the Dallas study, which has been renewed for five more years, with a goal of eventually recruiting 100 kids.
Caughy said she’s enjoying the energy of Athens, noting she’s never worked on a campus with undergraduates, and the sense of camaraderie that comes from working with like-minded researchers.
“They talk my language,” she said.
A self-proclaimed “data nerd,” Caughy said one of her major joys as a researcher is mentoring graduate students, particularly ones with an affinity for running data analyses.
“When they get excited about stuff, I find that really rewarding,” she said.
Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family Health Disparities
Department of Human Development and Family Science
B.S., Psychology, Texas A&M, 1986
M.Ed., Human Development, University of Maryland, 1989
Sc.D., Maternal and Child Health, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, 1992
At UGA: Since 2016