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Overview
Affiliations
AffiliationTelephone
Professor in the Department of Anthropology+44 (0) 191 33 41114
Professor in the Durham CELLS (Centre for Ethics and Law in the Life Sciences) 
Fellow of the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing40690

Biography

The major focus of my work lies in examining the effects on adult reproductive function of childhood development in different early life environments, as well as the implications for different developmental pathways on adult health. Together with many collaborators, we have run several studies with migrant Bangladeshis who either grew up in Sylhet, northeast Bangladesh (where immunological stressors are relatively high), or in the UK (with better health conditions). We consistently found that those individuals who spent their early childhoods in Bangladesh have lower levels of reproductive steroids (progesterone, testosterone) as adults, and shorter reproductive lifespans. Our data also suggest that there may be a developmental threshold around the age of 8 coinciding with the developmental milestone of adrenarche.

More recently, we have been exploring epigenetic mechanisms that may explain the plasticity of reproductive developmentand the rapidity (within one generation) with which individual reproductive phenotypes can be altered. We have so far discovered that changes in methylation of a gene called Srd5a1 might help to explain how rapid adjustments in ovarian function can be achieved during early life. (Srd5a1 encodes 5α-reductase-1, an enzyme that catalyzes the production of various reproductive and neuro-steroids). We plan further studies among Bangladeshi children to monitor methylation changes in Srd5a1 and other key genes that might be associated with the adrenarcheal transition and in adjusting future adult reproductive effort. 

My work fits broadly into the theme of Evolutionary Medicine, a field that has been growing since the early 1980s. My first degree, however, was in Archaeology of the Levant (University of London, Institute of Archaeology). I then went on to complete both a Masters and PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. For my PhD, I examined dental morphological traits in an Early Bronze Age population of skeletons excavated from Bab edh-Dhra’ in southern Jordan to test whether family groups were interred together in underground, chambered burials. I was always interested in the effects of the environment on population dynamics and particularly on fertility and ended up writing a paper (in 1985) that suggested the low fertility of !Kung San women in Botswana was explained by their heavy workloads suppressing ovarian function. I was even then shifting my focus away from archaeology and more towards biological anthropology.

I retrained through two postdoctoral fellowships in the anthropology departments at Harvard and Penn State Universities. At Harvard, I worked under the mentorship of Peter Ellison, learned radioimmunoassay techniques for the analyses of salivary steroid levels in his laboratory, and spent nine months working with the Ituri Project in Central Africa (in what was then Zaire), studying the effects of seasonal nutritional stress on reproductive function among the Lese, a group of slash and burn horticulturalists who live symbiotically with Efe pygmies. At Penn State University, I was funded by an NIH postdoctoral fellowship and worked with Jim Wood learning more about reproductive ageing and demography.

My first tenure-track job was at Northwestern University in the USA, but then I obtained a Royal Society University Fellowship and returned to the UK, first to Cambridge University and then to UCL. I was then offered a Professorship at Durham University where I have remained since 2006.

Research interests

  • Early life development and later life health
  • Evolutionary medicine
  • Reproductive ecology

Publications

Chapter in book

Edited book

Journal Article

Supervision students