Roxane Cohen Silver standing in front of theater seats.
Roxane Cohen Silver, UC Irvine Distinguished Professor of psychological science, medicine and public health, was elected this spring to the elite American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

A fatal brain tumor, a Japanese sportscar and a Holocaust survivor dishing up coleslaw in an Illinois deli helped inspire Roxane Cohen Silver’s pioneering research.

“It was a constellation of things falling together,” says the UC Irvine Distinguished Professor of psychological science, medicine and public health, who studies how people are affected by major tragedies such as 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Silver’s expertise has been featured in numerous news stories, and she has been widely acclaimed. Among many other honors, Silver received the 2022 Innovation Award from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies along with her longtime UC Irvine colleague Alison Holman, professor of nursing and psychological science, and this spring she was elected to the elite American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, which reportedly had the most concentration camp survivors of any city outside Israel, Silver became fascinated with the Holocaust after her mother explained why a local delicatessen employee had a prisoner number etched on his forearm.

That marked the beginning of her interest in how humans come through adversity. Another turning point was when the father of Silver’s high school best friend died three months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. “I didn’t know what to say to be helpful,” she recalls.

Around the same time, as a freshman at Northwestern University, Silver enrolled in a social psychology class taught by a chic, young, female professor who drove a Datsun 280Z. “I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to be,” she says.

In graduate school and beyond, Silver discovered that her focus on how people deal with personal and large-scale traumas “was not a common topic of study,” she says. In 1998, Silver co-authored a paper analyzing the emotional impact of firestorms on Laguna Beach and Malibu residents, but, she says, “it wasn’t until 9/11 that the issues that kept me up at night became salient to the rest of the country.”

A twist of fate led to Silver’s groundbreaking study of the 2001 terrorist attacks’ aftermath. Two years earlier, while she was teaching a UC Irvine graduate course called Coping With Stressful Life Events, news had broken of the Columbine school massacre in Colorado.

Reacting quickly, 11 of her students rented a van and drove to the scene while Silver secured university ethics board approval and funding from the National Science Foundation. She arrived in Colorado a few days later and began a series of interviews, only to have the local school board eventually pull the plug on further research.

Disappointed, Silver called the NSF to return the grant. To her surprise, the agency told her to keep the money for a future project. So when 9/11 happened, she says, “I was the only academic who had the funding to quickly launch a national study.”

And the results transformed her career. Silver and her team discovered that people nowhere near ground zero sometimes suffered the same psychological effects as those nearby, simply by virtue of repeatedly watching television coverage of the attacks. “It was the first time we recognized that an event in one part of the nation could traumatize people elsewhere,” she notes.

That phenomenon is worse now, Silver adds. When 9/11 happened, media outlets didn’t show the most graphic images. But in recent years, many of those filters have vanished, she says, thanks to the rise of social media and “the little televisions we carry in our pockets” (i.e., smartphones).

And it’s not just the level of exposure to tragedies that has increased, Silver suggests: so has the number of such events. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Americans encountered “a cascading set of collective traumas,” she says, that included economic woes, the killing of George Floyd, school shutdowns, tornadoes and hurricanes.

More recently, the drumbeat of “wars, political polarization and election anxiety” has kept people on edge, she says.

Silver is keeping tabs on it all. In March 2020, as COVID-19 tightened its grip, she started following a sample of 6,500 people. Subsequent grants have extended the project to analyze long-term reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war in Israel and Gaza, and other “turbulence in society.”

With at least two more years of data to collect, Silver professes no desire to wind down. “Why would I retire?” she asks. “I love what I do, and I can’t imagine having more fun than I’m having now.”

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