Select Page

Members of the Bio-Cultural Investigation of Intergenerational Epigenetic Mechanisms Research Team Seminar

September 24 – 26, 2019

A Bio-Cultural Investigation of Intergenerational Epigenetic Mechanisms

Understanding how humans adapt to extreme environments, and the potential costs to longevity and wellbeing of doing so, is an increasingly urgent problem that demands innovative approaches. The goal of this seminar was to create a bio-ethnographic model of vulnerable resilience (resilience in contexts of precarity) relevant to the (pre-SAR seminar) NSF team’s project, which focuses on the intersection between environmental disaster, culturally-shaped emotion, and epigenetic processes.

The new science of epigenetics holds a promising pathway for understanding how maternal experiences, including nutrition, environmental crises, and traumatic events, affect fetal development and infant outcomes. The team’s project focuses on one epigenetic mechanism, DNA methylation, because it is dynamically responsive to environmental conditions, including climate, diet, toxins, and traumatic events. DNA methylation is an epigenetic process by which cells stably control gene expression; DNA methylation patterns are potential markers of the biological “embodiment” of chemical, nutritional, and psychosocial exposures in adults, as well as infants and children.

The team’s NSF project examines the intergenerational human effects of one of northern Kenya’s worst droughts on record. During the drought of 2008-2009, pastoralists in Samburu County, Kenya lost 57% of their cattle and 65% of their sheep over the course of months (ILRI 2010). Hunger was widespread, and, whether or not it was directly drought-induced, fighting escalated between Samburu and their ethnic neighbors. The study compares the effects of this drought on children born to mothers pregnant with them during the drought, to same-sex siblings born post-drought recovery.

The SAR seminar brought together members of the research team and four outside scholars with expertise complementary to the project. They collectively agreed that the development of biocultural methodologies adequate to the task of meaningfully capturing human lived experience in quantifiable ways continues to vex anthropologists. To the extent that epigenetic research can contribute to knowledge about embodied human experience, it is imperative that studies produce qualitative data that is more nuanced, not less. A gold standard is needed for collecting ethnographic data for use in epigenetic studies and for quantifying that data.

Seminarians deliberated the requirements for a conceptual model that might serve as that gold standard (a bio-ethnographic approach to epigenetic research) – a model for producing reliable, quantifiable ethnographic data which makes sense across the methodological and theoretical languages of multiple disciplines. They reached consensus on the model and drafted the outline of a paper describing it. The model encompasses graduate training and ethics, minimum items necessary within the ethnographic component of research designs, necessary steps for ethnographic qualitative and quantitative data collection, steps for quantification of qualitative research for use in statistical models, and questions to consider for authentic engagement between cultural anthropology’s ethnographically “thick” approach and the goals of disciplines that emphasize quantitative data.

The seminarians also identified next steps for after the seminar:

  • Complete a journal article describing their conceptual model: Bio-ethnographic approach to epigenetic research
  • Submit a session proposal for the 2020 American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings relevant to epigenetic research on environment and health
  • Take the current NSF into longitudinal phases:
    1. Supplemental proposal to NSF
    2. Additional elements for a follow-up grant proposal, in progress


Bilinda Straight – Chair
Department of Anthropology
Western Michigan University

Noël Cameron
Professor of Human Biology
Loughborough University, UK

Charles E. Hilton
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Lora Iannotti
Associate Dean for Public Health and Associate Professor
Brown School
Washington University in St. Louis

Carolyn Lesorogol
Professor and Associate Dean
Global Strategy and Programs
Washington University in St. Louis

Amy Naugle
Department of Psychology
Western Michigan University

Belinda Needham
Professor of Epidemiology
Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health
University of Michigan

Charles Owuor Olungah
Associate Professor and Director
Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies
University of Nairobi, Kenya

Georgiana Onicescu Fisher
Assistant Professor
Department of Stastics
Western Michigan University

Larry Schell
Distinguished Professor
Departments of Anthropology and Epidemiology & Biostatistics
University of Albany, SUNY

Generous funding provided by the National Science Foundation

Pin It on Pinterest