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Research Overview

I am a biological anthropologist with broad interests in human evolutionary biology. I earned my PhD at The University of New Mexico, where I was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. In my dissertation research, I linked variation in infant feeding patterns and immune system development to energetic and epidemiologic conditions in indigenous Bolivian and Venezuelan farmers and foragers. In my postdoctoral research at Harvard University, I expanded my research geographically and thematically by examining the effects of globalization and modernization on infant diets and adaptive growth strategies in Yucatec Maya subsistence farmers. My current project examines the biocultural causes and consequences of rising cesarean birth rates in Latin America indigenous communities across a gradient of urbanization and modernization. In the Yucatec Maya, I have launched an investigation of rising cesarean delivery rates, and continue to study the impact of cesareans on the energetic trade-offs that underlie infant growth, immunological maturation, and gut microbiome assembly.

Theoretical Approach

My research is grounded conceptually in life history theory (a branch of evolutionary ecology) and the mechanisms of human biology. I examine the nutritional, epidemiological, and behavioral processes modulating developmental variation in infancy and childhood. I focus particularly on how these processes modulate energetic trade-offs between growth and immune function under conditions of resource scarcity, environmental pathogenicity, and ecological flux. Energetic trade-offs impose constraints on development and impact child health outcomes, particularly in challenging environments. Furthermore, the nature of energetic trade-offs can shift as small-scale, subsistence societies experience the nutritional and epidemiological transitions associated with globalization. These transitions can contribute to drastically altered community health profiles (for example; declines in breastfeeding, the onset of obesity and chronic disease) in a very short period of time.

Immuno-Nutritional Development of Latin American Indigenous Children

I have engaged in many years of field research in indigenous communities in Bolivia, Venezuela and Mexico.  Many studies establish cross-culturally robust standards for “normal” immuno-nutritional development, relying on healthy, well-nourished children inhabiting sanitary environments. My research has yielded presentations and papers comparing child immuno-nutritional development across a variety of contexts, providing theoretical arguments to expand definitions of biological normality and to distinguish biological from statistical significance. My 2017 paper on the links between cesarean birth and childhood growth in Yucatec Maya farmers showed a modulatory effect even in the absence of childhood obesity, and received international media attention.

Maternal-Infant Health and Interactions in Latin American Indigenous Communities

My research examine nutritional, epidemiologic and social factors shaping cross-cultural variation in breastfeeding patterns and infant care practices. Specifically, I documented the resilience of indigenous breastfeeding patterns in the face of modernization and globalization, and changes in birthing practices, pregnancy complications, mother-infant mortality, and infant diets across the nutritional and epidemiologic transitions in Mexico and Bolivia. This research provides theoretical insights into mother-child biobehavioral adaptability under conditions of nutritional, epidemiologic and social change. 

Global Health

This research is crucial not just in terms of studying evolutionary and developmental processes and hypotheses, but also for addressing global health patterns and inequalities. In Latin America and elsewhere, nearly half of the world’s population remains relatively non-industrialized, living in rural areas and maintaining traditional subsistence practices such as hunting, fishing and farming. Under these circumstances, the abrupt transition to medicalized births may lead to a number of unintended consequences. For example, low-income women who have had cesareans may be unable to pay for prolonged postnatal hospital care, or may live in environments that increase the risks of maternal-child morbidity post-cesarean. Ongoing and detailed studies of birthing practices in nutritionally and epidemiologically transitioning communities are therefore crucial to support optimal maternal-child health outcomes, and to determine the short and long-term health costs associated with often unnecessary birth interventions.