I have always had interdisciplinary interests, and I am delighted to be part of IU's Human Biology program. As an undergraduate I struggled to find a major that was a good fit for me – I was intrigued by everything from medieval history to animal behavior! I ended up in a major that combined anthropology, psychology and biology, which eventually led me to pursue a PhD in medical anthropology, exploring both the biological and cultural dimensions of human health (see also my textbook: Medical Anthropology: A biocultural approach 3rd edition Oxford University Press, 2017). I am interested in how biology affects culture, how culturally patterned behavior affects biology, and how these forces interact over time. I make extensive use of an evolutionary perspective in both my research and teaching, which means that I consider how biology and behavior can be considered adaptive. I apply this approach to problems related to health, disease, demography, diet and nutrition, and human social behavior. My main area of current research broadly concerns human diet and nutrition; my earlier work focused on maternal-infant health in the high-altitude Himalaya.
Diet and Nutrition
My current work is on the relationship between milk consumption and child health in the United States and in India. I am interested in testing widespread claims that milk enhances child growth, particularly in height. I have also worked on the relationship between milk consumption and age at menarche, milk consumption and how it affects children who grow particularly rapidly, and I am more broadly concerned with the relationship between milk consumption and life history parameters. That is, milk is designed to facilitate the growth and survival of juveniles within a particular mammalian species, yet cow's milk is now widely consumed by individuals of all ages. Thus the question is how this food affects human biology when consumed after infancy. I am interested in the U.S. and India because both are major producers of milk and both have cultural and/or religious traditions that privilege milk, yet the context in which milk is promoted is very different. It is also the case that there is variation in the digestive physiology necessary to consume milk after infancy, yet milk is increasingly consumed in populations with little or no history of milk consumption. How milk has become a globalized food and how this relates to population variation in milk digestion capacity is one aspect of this complex topic. I have published two books on milk: Re-Imagining Milk (2nd edition, Routledge Press, 2016) and Cultures of Milk (Harvard University Press, 2014).
Maternal-infant health and high altitude adaptation
My earlier work focused on maternal and infant health within the ecological and cultural context of the Tibetan plateau of the high altitude Himalaya in India, where I conducted long term research. I was particularly concerned with how both the ecological challenges inherent to this environment (e.g., hypoxia) as well as culturally prescribed patterns of behavior affect maternal and infant health. In addition, I am interested in how very high rates of infant death can be understood and have implications for emotional development (i.e., attachment) and household kinship relations. This work is summarized and detailed in my book, An Ecology of High Altitude Infancy: A Biocultural Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2004)