Q&A: MacArthur "genius grant" winner Jenny Tung

Associate professor of evolutionary anthropology Jenny Tung is a 2019 MacArthur Fellow

Jenny Tung ’03, Ph.D. ’10, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology, is among the recipients of a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (popularly known as the “genius grant”). Her research involves understanding how social and environmental adversity affects health and survival over the lifespan of an individual.

You were hooked on this field from your time in a freshman seminar, right? And that projected you into graduate school.

One of the things I got from the seminar was the idea that you could combine evolutionary perspectives and the mechanisms of genetics to understand why the world looks the way it does. By the time I started graduate school, I wanted to study these very complex, long-term, socially differentiated relationships among animals that live a long time and form close social bonds, like we do.

And that brought you to reaching baboons in the wild, in Amboseli, Kenya.

People I’m lucky enough to collaborate today with started doing very intensive, detailed, day-to-day fieldwork there back in 1971. They put together tracking systems and methods for collecting data that could be used for a lot of things they never anticipated. If you want to study a species from the standpoint of genetics, you want a decent sample size and a lot of pre-existing information.

Social scientists have wrestled with the social determinants of health, but isn’t this an unusual angle for primate researchers?

Low socioeconomic status, social isolation, lack of social support—these seem to be big predictors of how humans live their lives. The question is, for humans and other social animals, whether social factors have any direct effects on our cells themselves. Can the impact of social stress be studied from a biological lens and not just by social scientists? We’ve shown that early-life insults are lifespan-shortening for non-human primates. They can be lifespan-threatening in their offspring, as well, independently of what the offspring have experienced directly.

What’s one striking finding from your more recent fieldwork?

One of my graduate students led a study a few years ago that showed the impact of being born into a drought environment: Female baboons would grow up with lower fertility levels. But there’s a twist: If you came from a high-status family, you were buffered from that kind of effect. On the other hand, if you lose your mom before you turn one—which is approximately the age baby baboons get weaned, so they can feed on their own—that’s basically a death sentence for almost all the animals, regardless of status.

Given climate change, are the stress factors in that setting getting worse?

About ten years ago, we had the worst drought that’s ever been recorded in Amboseli. Human population growth is also causing new pressure on the baboons. On the other hand, partly because of these changes, the number of predators, like leopards and lions, is decreasing. These are complex factors, since, as the population of baboons increases, competition among baboons also increases.

Another strand of your research has you studying macaque monkeys in captivity at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Here we’re looking at gene activity through controlled experiments, as opposed to the observations we do in the wild. When we introduce a female macaque into a new social group, earlier introductions predict higher status. Females who go in later are lower-status. We can’t do that kind of experiment in humans. So our work with the macaques is very powerful for demonstrating the causal effects of social-status variation by itself, in the absence of factors like diet or health-care access. What’s something surprising that you’ve learned about macaques, status, and wellbeing? Females who rise in rank don’t completely escape—in molecular and physiological terms—a previous lower status. Females who drop in rank, on the other hand, quickly lose the genomic signature of that lost high status. So our data suggest a complex interplay of social history and current social circumstances, which we’re attempting to tease apart now.

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