Meet Sera Young: anthropologist studying undernutrition in low-resource settings



Dr. Young joined the Northwestern Department of Anthropology and Program in Global Health Studies this year. Her work focuses on maternal and child undernutrition in low-resource settings, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. “Everything I do focuses on what you call ‘the first thousand days,’ which is the year before delivery and the two years after. The people who struggle the most in that time are those with insufficient resources,” she said. “Some of the research I do involves people who are experiencing food insecurity, mothers who are micronutrient deficient, the implications of water insecurity and those who crave consumption of non-foods–known as pica.”

She received her bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Michigan. She then studied medical anthropology (MA, University of Amsterdam), international nutrition (PhD, Cornell University) and HIV (Fellowship, University of California – San Francisco).  


What inspired your research?

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I went to West Africa as a field assistant doing anthropometry, measuring height, weight and upper arm circumference. There, I studied anthropology of religion, and how people make meaning of what the world is. When I got there, there were health problems I couldn’t have even imagined, and the high infant mortality rate caught my attention.


What is the intersection of Anthropology and Global Health?

We often think that we can fix health problems when we understand the virus, the cell or the toxin–all the physiological causes of poor health. Although these are the actual causes of health outcomes, something happens before a virus is transmitted or before a toxin is ingested. That’s what’s really interesting to me. You can make a distinction between pre-dental and post-dental nutrition. There’s everything that happens with food before it crosses our teeth, and then there’s everything that happens after you swallow it–the biochemical side of things. In my opinion, the biochemical side is necessary but not sufficient for understanding the major global health problems we see in the world. You could say that my research group’s focus is on pre-dental nutrition.


What were your most meaningful international research experiences?

My heart was captured by my time in West Africa. A few years after, I went to Zanzibar in East Africa, which was a vastly different world, and lived with several different Swahili families. This experience led me to my master’s project on maternal anemia, which led me to complete a doctorate in nutrition. These experiences were important to me professionally, but they also shaped my worldview, for example the importance of cross-cultural understanding and embrace of different ideas.


What is the most pressing factor we should address in regard to maternal and child health?

Undernutrition is a huge problem. There are a lot of causes of poor health, and illnesses kill millions every year. But there’s this concept called “potentiating effect of undernutrition” which is a fancy way of saying that poor nutrition is the underlying cause of death in cases that don’t seem nutrition related, like pneumonia. If a well-nourished child contracts a virus, they’ll become sick, but then they’ll get better. If a poorly-nourished child contracts the same virus, they’ll be much less likely to recover.

Another issue related to undernutrition is breastfeeding. If more babies got more breastmilk for long periods of time, there would be economic benefits, cognitive development benefits and so much more.

Lastly, food insecurity among women and children is really high, even right here in the United States. It is associated with many bad outcomes in terms physical and mental health, cognitive development, and economic productivity.


What is the leading contributor to food insecurity?

There’s plenty of food in the world, and if that was evenly distributed, problem solved. But the issue at hand is equitable distribution.

I also want to bring up the topic of water insecurity. We often think of water insecurity being in drought-ridden nations, but it’s right here as well. The consequences haven’t really been studied, so that’s something I’d like to explore with undergraduates.


Dr. Young will be teaching a course in Winter 2017 called “Ecology of Infant Feeding: A global perspective on the best ways to feed babies.” The course will introduce students to the health and social consequences of practices such as breastfeeding, bottle feeding and complementary (non-milk) foods.

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